Time to address workplace bullying

Written by
Dr Kellie Vincent

21 Sep 2016

21 Sep 2016 • by Dr Kellie Vincent

How can it be eradicated?

Aside from the need to protect individuals, there is a significant business case to be made to try to eradicate bullying behaviour. It is not just those who are bullied, but also those who witness bullying that are damaged by the experience (Branch et al, 2013). Where bullying exists within organisations, the negative impact results in a decreased rate of commitment, concentration, job satisfaction and morale among employees, and an increased rate of errors, absenteeism and staff turnover (Ritzman, 2016).

Workplace bullying is a complex phenomenon that often manifests subtly and is frequently left to the HR department to resolve. Sadly, there is a lack of faith in HR departments to successfully address this. Dana Wilkie, a researcher and anti-bullying activist, reported that in a study among 2000 UK employees 58% stated they had been bullied or had witnessed bullying. Of those, only half reported it mostly because they feared for their job security or didn’t feel it was their place to inform anyone.

Challenges faced in addressing bullying relate to the sheer complexity of detecting it happening, identifying who the bully, or bullies are, and preventing the incubation of ‘bully friendly’ environments where perpetuators rise to the top. 

Detecting bullying

Unfortunately, there is no agreed definition of bullying, and perceptions about what behaviours constitute bullying are subjective and vary from individual to individual (Branch et al, 2013). Just as is found within school playgrounds, identifying the real perpetuators is not a simple task. Author Lynne Curry, identified seven classic types of bully calls to everyone to ‘stand up to the bullies’. Curry (2016) points out that those who use fear, guilt or intimidation to control others rarely change their behaviour voluntarily because they enjoy the torment they create. Wilkie (2016) agreed that in order to stop bullies they need to be openly challenged but suggested that sometimes, unless their anti-social behaviour is pointed out to them, some people are not even aware they are behaving in an inappropriate or spiteful manner.

In some instances bullying happens because of just a few bad apples with significant personality disorders.  Studies have linked almost a third of workplace bullying as stemming from the presence of corporate psychopaths within organisations (Boddy, 2011). Corporate psychopaths are the one percent of individuals within society who completely lack empathy. The difference between corporate and criminal psychopaths is simple. The corporate ones are intelligent enough to realise that if they are imprisoned they limit their capacity to control and evoke misery. They either limit their actions or successfully remain undetected. The ability to charm and influence those more senior than themselves and gather a team of ‘henchmen’ to perform their dirty work is second nature to those with this form of personality disorder. Qualities such as charisma, sharp thinking and ability to ruthlessly self-promote that they are often quite likely to be found within senior leadership roles after a quick rise to the top.  In their book ‘Snakes in Suits’, Babiak and Hare (2007) informed us that there are three and a half times more psychopaths in senior executive positions than in the general population. This figure excludes those who are not actually psychopaths but have personality traits that are far from promoting warmth and trust.  With this in mind, unless careful screening specifically for empathy and team aptitude during interviews and development reviews are conducted, there is a strong likelihood that bullies could easily find their way into positons of power.

We know there is limited agreement about what behaviours constitute bullying. This means that unless it is widely agreed that certain bad behaviours are inappropriate there is the potential for toxic cultures to ‘normalise’ within organisations. This is even more likely if the organisation is led by someone with a personality disorder. To put this into perspective, despite anti-bullying policies being widely adopted within UK organisations, research by the Trades Union Congress in 2016 found 36% of employees have quit a job at some point due to bullying.

We need to be mindful that sometimes even well intentioned initiatives, such as developing wellness programmes that promote employees physical fitness, can have unintended consequences. In February an FT article by journalist Sarah O’Connor criticised fitness based initiatives for increasing stress, internal competiveness and bullying among employees (O’Connor, 2016). The journalist called for organisations to focus more on the overall emotional wellbeing of employees because studies had shown that those who were depressed or feeling a little downtrodden were far more likely to experience bullying.

Clearly there is a case to be made for thinking about how organisations can create cultures where bullying is recognised and where employees feel able to report incidents. For this to happen there must be a culture of respect and trust permeating at every level; this goes beyond the remit of just the HR department and everyone within the organisation has a role to play. Where HR plays a significant role is in the area of anti-bullying training to enable everyone to identify when bullying is actually happening and when their own behaviour is not appropriate.

Just as in any school playground, if left unchecked, the bullies continue to torment and wreak havoc on individuals and sour the organisational culture. Unless actions are taken at the individual and organisational level they will not stop.