Toxic teams: How to deal with bullying in the workplace

One HR manager told HRD it's a worrying threat to the stability of the new remote workplace

Toxic teams: How to deal with bullying in the workplace

Bullying is a common hazard of any modern work environment but it’s a topic that has only really emerged as problematic over the last 20 years. The bullying boss is a famously despised character who has been researched by workplace psychologists extensively but subordinates who bully upward have remained relatively undiscussed because it’s difficult to divulge instances of bullying from managers. One HR consultant says it’s a worrying threat to the stability of the new remote workplace.

Maureen Kyne is a workplace bullying specialist and author who works with senior leadership teams in the manufacturing, healthcare and local government sectors. Kyne believes that allowing employees to work in their homes, in an environment they control, has given rise to insubordination and upwards bullying and current policy around workplace bullying doesn’t address or label this type of behaviour. “When the boss isn’t in the office building with their employees it makes it difficult to call out the bullying behaviour,” Kyne told HRD.

Kyne said senior management needs protection from the behaviour and would like to see it addressed in workplace policy and legislation. “Enforcing the code of conduct for employees you never see in person brings its own set of challenges so it’s critical in the new work environments that employee understand their obligations to their boss”.   

In her new book, Kyne highlights the new trend and sits down with managers to discuss some of the typical upwards bullying behaviour they have experienced. The most typical behaviours were, multi-tasking during remote meetings, refusing to return to the office, ignoring directives and belligerent acts of behaviour. Other behaviour can include, not taking on reasonable work allocation, not completing tasks or purposely doing them incorrectly, not following correct channels, being deliberately avoidant and combative or pushing the boundary with policy procedures.

“It’s really hard to stay connected when employees aren’t in their physical office setting so understanding your employees and making them feel valued, psychologically safe, and healthy will create a more trusting environment where employees are less likely to question authority”.

Ms Kyne’s 5 effective approaches to prevent Upward Bullying:

  • Enforce a hybrid office policy

Remote working requires its own policy.  The policy should include expectations and guidelines, so employees are clear on the new rules; allocation of tasks, who works from home, who is expected in the office, new responsibilities when working from home and how the hybrid office hierarchy works in terms of the chain of command.

  • Re-write the code of conduct

The hybrid office has created new norms and new rules challenging existing policies. To avoid ambiguity around employee expectations, the code of conduct requires a complete re-write to reflect the organisations culture, and address other workplace policies including acceptable behaviour, sexual harassment and bullying.

  • Get tougher

The remote work environment requires strong leadership. The open-door policy has made it harder for bosses to lead without being undermined. Bosses need to clearly communicate expectations, so their employees trust the flow of information, follow company directives and don’t baulk at being asked to complete relevant tasks. Organisations that lead from the top down are more likely to avoid work, health and safety issues.

  • Learn how to manage from afar

Remote management requires a different skill set than face to face. Organisations should consider educating and upskilling their managers and so they are better resourced and can lead with clear direction and authority. Quality management will help managers feel valued and supported and reduce the risk of upward bullying.

  • Make it easier to report bullying

Its crucial organisations invest in a robust grievance system that includes policies and processes to deal with upward bullying.  To avoid upward bullying, she says managers need to know how to identify it and feel encouraged that when they report cases to HR or senior management their complaint will be supported.

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