Bullying in the workplace: subtle and pernicious

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A police inspector was criticised for his treatment of a non-sworn employee in a recent case of constructive dismissal considered by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA). The former employee was successful in arguing that she had been “bullied” to an extent that made it impossible for her to continue work, forcing her to resign.

The case raises the issue of workplace bullying in New Zealand, its prevalence, and what can be done to combat it. In a 2009 report entitled Understanding Stress and Bullying in New Zealand Workplaces, researchers found that workplace stress and bullying were significant issues in four sectors here: hospitality, travel, health and education.

And it’s a problem that employers, and HR practitioners, cannot afford to ignore. “The evidence is incredibly bad, it’s bad for morale, bad for absenteeism, bad for staff turnover,” according to Dr Dianne Gardner, one of the authors of the report and a senior lecturer in psychology at Massey University. Similarly, the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment states on their website that bullying impacts productivity in various ways, including:
 

  • Poor performance
  • Increased absence
  • Low morale
  • Loss of company reputation
  • Resignations and difficulty in recruiting
  • Poor customer service and/or product quality

But what can be done? “A workplace situation may be allowing, even encouraging that kind of behaviour implicitly,” said Gardner. In such a case, it’s imperative that the organisational culture is changed, so that bullying behaviour is no longer tolerated.

Part of the problem is that workplace bullying isn’t always easy to detect. “Young people tend not to be subtle, but people in workplaces tend to be very subtle,” Gardner said. Employers and managers need to look out for warning signs of bullying, ensure that any potential instances are carefully investigated by an objective individual, institute a proper grievances and complaints procedure, and model appropriate behaviour.

Avoiding and eradicating workplace bullying:
 

  • Managers and employers need to know what is going on in the workplace, and to look for warning signs of bullying. For example, when a good and loyal employee is suddenly accused of lacking integrity, management should stop and ask, ‘What’s happened here?’
     
  • Sudden and unexplained resignations of staff should also be examined. This is because employees who have been bullied often don’t wish to discuss it, or may even fail to recognise that they have been bullied.
     
  • When there is a potential instance of bullying, it should be carefully investigated. “You’ve got to look at really what is going on…it can be just as damaging to be falsely accused of bullying, as to be the victim of bullying,” Gardner said.
     
  • When it comes to investigating bullying, HR is often viewed as being aligned with management priorities, so you need to bring in someone who is fair and impartial, and who can liaise with both employees and managers.
     
  • “It’s better to talk about the way people should interact rather than how they shouldn’t,” Gardner said. Managers and leaders should model good behaviour, because they are closely watched by other staff members.
     
  • Gardner has very mixed feelings about policies on workplace bullying. “They can just be a piece of paper on the wall, or they may be a real guide,” she said. In the latter case, they may be worth having.

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