David Wray

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Conquering Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying cartoon by eR!Q, 2002
Credit: eR!Q

Workplace Bullying 

Workplace bullying is defined by Morten Birkeland Nielsen in his 2018 study as: 

…situations where an employee repeatedly and over a prolonged time period is exposed to harassing behavior from one or more colleagues (including subordinates and leaders) and where the targeted person is unable to defend him-/herself against this systematic mistreatment.

This leads us to ponder what behaviours constitute mistreatment? Examples might include being repeatedly:

  • Belittled through names, terms, references, or incivility intended to diminish the person
  • Made fun of or the brunt of “joking comments” for being different
  • Mocked about your home working environment or set-up
  • Teased for weight gains or losses
  • Diminished within a role (such as being regularly excluded from new work assignments or team discussions)
  • Mocked for wanting to do the job right or the right way

A study by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) shows that 30% of office workers endure bullying whereas a staggering 43% of remote workers do! So, understanding how to overcome it and fight back is more relevant than ever. 

Tactics to Counter Workplace Bullying

It helps to contextualize examples before setting out a skill-based framework to fight back against bullying.

Example 1: The team leader (or teammates) routinely diminishes or marginalizes someone

Billy joined a hi-tech company during the pandemic that itself was trying to navigate work from home norms and communication. A couple of months in, communication became strained, and Billy was starting to question his decision to join. Billy’s manager, Matthew, had become the issue. Billy wasn’t included in communication he should have been, and his work assignments mismatched his skillset. 

A possible approach to counter Matthew’s marginalization (and a likely perception by peers that Billy is “lazy”):

  • Billy could engage more with peers and offer to help them with their projects or assignments (this counters the perception of being lazy or a non-team player and creates a team around us).
  • He could also speak to HR and request advice or assistance to resolve the communication issues with Matthew.
  • Billy should document everything and ensure his value is seen more widely than simply Matthew.

Example 2: An employer or client uses pay as a mechanism to pressure a person into doing more for less

Jenny’s client, Widgets R Us, and its CEO Isabella started communicating less and less but nevertheless, Jenny and her team continued to deliver. Unbeknownst to Jenny, Widgets R Us, were slow to react to the pandemic effects on the business so funding dried up. Isabella wanted Jenny to deliver more work under a contract but do so without a commensurate change in fees. With pressure mounting, Jenny was faced with a difficult decision – accept the pressure to do more for less (overall) or walk away from the client.

Employer, like client, approaches in these situations are typically binary:

  • Jenny could reiterate the value of her services and expertise to Isabella, and either negotiate for a fair value fee or a discounted fee as a gesture of goodwill.
  • She could terminate the contract with the client and focus her energy on new clients.
  • In employment situations, the choices are similar – agree to a salary/compensation adjustment or resign (and join another firm).
  • Of course, going public often exerts pressure on the party misbehaving, so it remains a last resort.

A Framework for Fighting Back

So, what do these examples show us in terms of the skills necessary to fight back against workplace bullying?

There are five distinct steps:

  1. Tackle the situation head-on
  2. Find and confide in someone you trust
  3. Document everything
  4. Be factual at all times
  5. Raise the issue higher within the organization

Tackling it Head On

Tackling the situation head-on means standing toe to toe against the bully. Silence is what allows the bullying to continue, giving it a voice is the first step to stamping it out. As tempting as it is to react as the bully does (such as shouting back), do not sink to their level. For instance, if someone makes an inappropriate comment – the response could be “let’s find some time to chat about this in private, your joke is inappropriate, and I will not tolerate it”. It could also include leaving the room or ending the video call (or phone call). It’s a challenging step that requires bravery, but it does change the game – we send a clear signal that we are not a target.

Find a Confidante

Telling others what is happening helps us to manage the stress associated with being bullied in the workplace. Giving it a voice is the first step to releasing it from within us. This small and simple action protects our physical and mental wellbeing, because WBI found that 30% of individuals bullied in the workplace suffer from PTSD. When one realizes that 76.3 million US workers are bullied, that translates to around 24 million employees coping with PTSD!

Document Everything & Be Factual

Documentation is our best defence where differences of opinion are likely to emerge. Document everything, big and small, in an objective and factual manner. Avoid assigning meaning to someone else’s behaviour or words, this crosses into subjective territory. If for instance, we are excluded from a meeting we should have been invited to, then document it as:

  • I was not invited to, or advised of, the meeting held on April 2, 202x discussing the company’s 3-year strategic plan.

Avoid making descriptions that mix fact with supposition:

  • Matthew deliberately excluded me from the April 2nd meeting to discuss the company’s 3-year strategic plan because he doesn’t like me. 

Raise the Issue Higher

The essential skill here is one of maintaining composure and control when presenting the factual case, without letting anger or frustration take over. 

Always start with the immediate manager and then work up the reporting chain if nothing improves. HR should also be part of the escalation chain when the situation is not remedied, and if all else fails, there is always a legal avenue under employment law.

Your turn

The impact of bullying can have long-term negative effects. It is up to each of us to speak up and report it, whether we are a victim or a witness. I believe we each have a duty to ensure human dignity is preserved inside and outside of the workplace.

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views, tips, and tricks on how you successfully tackle workplace bullying.

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