Beating bullies

by 18 Nov 2009

2009 may go down as the year of the bully. From media reports on the spate of school bullying to high profile court cases on corporate bullying, it seems the unfortunate topic has bullied its way to the top of the agenda.

Has the situation really escalated out of control? Jo Kamira, principal at Wise Workplace Investigations, believes bullying has always existed, bubbling unseen under the surface. Cases are only now being reported, thanks largely to raised awareness of individual rights and understanding from the corporate world on the wide-ranging implications of bullying.

"I think there's greater awareness in the workforce about what's acceptable and what's not and organisations have in place proper policies and procedures. Some of them have very loose ones, but on the whole, most big organisations and government have quite stringent policies in place. I also think a lot of Gen Y won't put up with what older Gen X and Baby Boomers put up with - because they've never worked in a workplace that hasn't had an awareness of bullying. Previous generations had a tendency to put up and shut up," says Kamira.

Bernie Althofer, managing director of EGL I Assessments, notes that the introduction of codes of practices, changes to legislation, and implementation of resolution options may have provided victims and organisations with a way of detecting, preventing and resolving workplace bullying - but there is still work to be done.

"Confidentiality requirements that go with most settlements prevent the wider community from knowing the full extent of workplace bullying in the public and private sector," he says. "I believe that workplace bullying is still bubbling away as victims may have little confidence in the actual effectiveness of resolution options when they perceive that little is done about the alleged bully."

While people often refer to 'bullying' in a broad sense, the term is usually mixed in with other terms, such as discrimination and harassment. "I think that people use the terms bullying, discrimination and harassment indiscriminately," says Kamira. "When they say it they don't really know what they mean. They're just trying to articulate what has been happening to them in the workplace. For me I think there's a generic term. All bullying and all discrimination is harassment - it just takes different guises."

There are other misconceptions. Kamira notes that often the first things that spring to mind when the word 'bullying' is used are the hazing or initiation rites that tradespeople or apprentices suffer through; and following that overt sexual harassment comes to mind. She suggests that bullying can take far more subtle forms.

"Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on what's wrong. It might be something like a person coming into a workplace and finding an established group of friends that constantly go out to lunch together so they tend to feel ostracised. That's a type of discrimination. It can be that subtle. If can be little things like assuming that because someone has a position they should be able to do a job, and not giving them the information to do that job. That's not overt - it could be explained away by saying the workplace is very busy or the manager doesn't have the time. But if that manager thinks that person isn't really capable then that's a subtle type of bullying as well, which is just as insidious as someone doing something overt," she says.

Kamira warns that sometimes bullying is not bullying at all, but rather a lawful direction by a manager to a subordinate. "I've recently seen a surge of bullying complaints where a subordinate had complained of being bullied by the boss. The investigation revealed that the complainant, in each case, was disgruntled by their boss' management style in that they had been made to be accountable," she says.

Fertile ground
Unfortunately, there are environments in which bullies thrive. Kamira says the worst bullies - known as 'corporate psychopaths' - are to be found in the top echelons of organisations. These people are often rewarded for doing their job, regardless of how they conduct themselves. "So many organisations are geared to the bottom line, and if that bottom line is for shareholders or for profit, you can run into trouble. Then you get people who fit the classic corporate psychopath profile yet they're seen as an expert in their field, they get the job done, they bring in great results - it doesn't matter about the body count all around them," she says.

Althofer maintains that workplace bullying is a complex issue requiring complex solutions. The mere fact that an organisation has a workplace bullying detection, prevention and resolution policy may not be sufficient to defend an allegation. He suggests workplace bullying can thrive in organisations where:

  • Poor people management, practices and skills exist
  • Inappropriate management style or lack of supervision is part of the organisation
  • Overwork happens on a regular basis
  • Role ambiguity occurs
  • Poor consultation processes occur
  • There are inconsistent work flows and reporting procedures
  • The level and nature of training is inadequate or inappropriate
  • There are unreasonable performance expectations
  • There are work places with high levels of job dissatisfaction

"It's important to note that if these environmental factors are not addressed, the alleged bully may find some fertile grounds in which to enhance their skills. Consequently, they will get the outcomes the organisation is looking for, and they end up being rewarded," he says.

In some ways, bullies have been aided by the rise of the internet and e-communication. Instant communication such as Twitter makes it easy to transmit messages that are offensive, humiliating or intimidating. However, Althofer says that many users - younger people in particular - may not understand that forensic auditors have the skills to trace records even on electronic devices. "Whilst the user may believe they have completely erased the offensive content, the forensic auditor may be able to find the message," he says.

Are e-messages harder to trace? Althofer says the ability to use offshore locations to transmit certain types of information makes it harder to find the original source, and if Governments want to legislate against the nefarious use of communication devices, they need international support.

At a practical level, it becomes problematic for the victim who is subjected to cyber stalking or cyber bullying. Some victims will automatically delete the offensive material whilst others might forward it on. "When a victim is traumatised by the bullying behaviours, they may not think to save the 'evidence' which might be required in a criminal prosecution," Althofer says.

Kamira says she has been surprised that in the process of investigating several cases of alleged e-bullying by managers, she's discovered the opposite to be true: the manager is being bullied by employee. This 'upwards bullying' is more commonplace than one might believe.

Upwards bullying
Upwards bullying is not new but has been gaining recent publicity. Author Tim Field, who wrote Bully in Sight in 1996, discussed the various forms of bullying and highlighted that bullying did from time to time occur from the bottom up, not just top down or sideways.

"I've also been made aware not only executive officers, but even managers and supervisors being 'bullied' by junior personnel who do hold some positions of power within organisations. What is this position of power? Control of information can be a very powerful tool and when abused, can result in an executive officer, manager or supervisor being made to look bad or even to 'lose face'. It has been suggested to me that some individuals withhold information to get revenge for some perceived injustice that has occurred to themselves or to a work colleague," says Althofer.

In the competitive job market, upwards bullying may be used to destroy an individual's reputation. "Imagine a situation when a junior employee perceives that they are entitled to a certain position currently occupied by a long term employee," says Althofer. "The position is upgraded and advertised. Suddenly, a rumour starts that the long-term employee is a serial sexual harasser. The long-term employee is suddenly under a cloud and their selection may be hindered until such stage as the rumour is investigated. By then the damage is done."

The cost of bullying
The cost of bullying has escalated in the past decade. 2008 data puts the cost of workplace bullying at $160,000 per 100 employees per annum. This equates to $1,600 per person per year.

"This data may not take into consideration the diverse range of indirect costs that can be incurred and there does not appear to be any way of collecting those costs without creating a bureaucratic reporting process," says Althofer.

"Most organisations would have systems or processes that record the direct costs such as those that are easily measureable and that already appear in budgets - albeit without the word bully - and might include a range of legal fees, awards made against the employer by Courts, Commissions and Tribunals," he adds.

However, Althofer says there may be some organisations that do not have systems or processes in place to record bullying costs linked to the following:

Staff - the cost of employees' time, including the bully, victim(s), manager(s), personnel, union representative and administrators, etc. These costs can include communication, investigation, checking and familiarisation with procedures, and attending meetings, etc

Overheads - including the use of meeting rooms, facilities, lighting, heating, storage of records, and production of statistics, etc

Resources - such as the use of photocopiers, telephones, faxes, computers, hardware, networks, stationery, and consumables, etc

Resource support - such as computer costs including ordering and resupply, maintenance, backup, hardware upgrades, installation, network support, storage and retrieval, etc

Performance and productivity - such as intangible costs including the impoverishing, draining and exhausting effect on all employees in the hierarchy from experiencing, defending or witnessing the bully's repeated behaviour

Sickness - such as direct and indirect costs including benefits, administration, plus costs associated with medical/ill-health retirement etc

Medical costs - including the provision of welfare and counselling, occupational health services, company/organisational doctor/psychologists/psychiatrists/counsellors and consultants' reports, etc

Consequential losses - such as those direct and indirect costs including staff leaving, training investment, loss of knowledge and experience of subject, clients, customers, procedures, etc, and the flow on effects from adverse publicity

What can be done?
Employers keen to avoid the unpleasant task of fronting up to a Court, Commission or Tribunal to defend an allegation of workplace bullying should consider the following:

  • Does the organisation have a workplace bullying detection, prevention and resolution policy?
  • When was it written, implemented or reviewed?
  • Who signed it off (who gave approval)? If your signature is on the policy, you may be asked to give evidence about the policy.
  • How many allegations of workplace bullying have been made/what has been done about them/how were they resolved?
  • What have been the costs of workplace bullying? (How many claims, what payouts have been made, what improvements have been made?)
  • How long does it take to resolve workplace bullying incidents from when they first happen, to that time when all factors have been put 'to bed' so to speak?

"Executive officers should realise that victims and even alleged bullies are seeking resolution. Victims want someone to hear their story and to be believed, whilst bullies may be seeking confirmation that their actions were reasonable and legitimate," says Althofer.

Some executive officers may be extremely proactive and engage a workplace bullying consultant or legal advisor to lead them through the array of questions prior to any allegation even being made.

"It's extremely advantageous to be prepared, rather than face a potential situation where you could be held personally liable for a death or serious injury in your workplace," Althofer suggests.

Kamira says the key is to deal with issues as they arise. "It's so easy to sweep it under the carpet. It's that innocuous thing on a Tuesday afternoon when you're just about to leave the office that comes back to bite you three months later. You must show that it's procedurally fair, that natural justice has been satisfied, and that you're transparent in what you do," she says.


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