Witnesses to workplace bullying consider quitting more than the victims

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Witnesses to workplace bullying often have a stronger urge to leave the workplace than the actual victims– and this can impact on a company’s bottom line, according to new research.

It is common to assume that the people who are bullied bear the full brunt of the behaviour – but this study found people across an organisation experience a moral indignation when others are bullied which can make them want to leave in protest, said study co-author Sandra Robinson, who is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

These findings indicate that the corrosive effects of bullying in the workplace may be more dramatic and costly than previously thought, she said. “All of the research respondents who experienced bullying, either directly or indirectly, reported a greater desire to quit their jobs than those who did not, and yet the people who experienced it as bystanders, or with less frequency, reported wanting to quit in even greater numbers, Robinson said.

Even if such employees did not leave their workplace, an organisation's productivity could suffer severely if staff members had an unrealised desire to leave, warned Robinson. Managers need to be aware that the behaviour is pervasive and it can have a mushrooming effect that goes well beyond the victims. Ultimately bullies can hurt the bottom line and need to be dealt with quickly and publicly so that justice is restored to the workplace.

In Canada and the US the publication of the research has provoked renewed debate on the issue of workplace bullying. Most commentators agree the problem is getting worse but, while some claim anti-bullying policies are not the solution, others insist they are the only way to deal with the problem.

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has advised that victims of bullying are able to enact legal claims against their employer, under the relevant legislation (eg: the Employment Relations Act and the Health & Safety in Employment Act) as well as under common law.

To deal with cases of workplace bullying, the MBIE offered the following advice:

  • Workplace bullying can be hard to identify – it must amount to more than just a personality clash, but the behaviour does not have to amount to physical harm. Bullying behaviour is often revealed by a bully’s repeated actions combined with a desire to cause fear or distress and gain power or exert dominance.
  • A bullied employee must ensure their employer is aware of the problem so that the employer can fulfil its obligations to properly investigate the matter and take the necessary steps to ensure the employee’s safety.A responsible employer has a duty to properly investigate a bullied employee’s concerns, reach a conclusion, and take the necessary steps to protect that employee. The employer must keep the employee informed of the process and of any decisions made.
  • Employees should also allow the employer a reasonable opportunity to address the issue once the employer is aware of the bullying – although what this constitutes depends on the situation itself.
  • Employers must act carefully when dealing with bullying complaints. While employers are obligated to act to protect their staff from bullying, they also have to follow proper disciplinary procedures, which can be justified, with the alleged bully.


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