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Dealing with office bullies

Victims of this kind of bullying should not resign themselves to their fate, as there are several steps they can take to put an end to the bully’s reign of terror, an expert says.

While many young South Africans are victims to bullying at school, the phenomenon is not limited to the playground, with many lives and careers damaged annually by bullies in the workplace.

Victims of this kind of bullying should not resign themselves to their fate, as there are several steps they can take to put an end to the bully’s reign of terror, an expert says.

“Workplace bullying is the consistent and repeated mistreatment of one employee by another, and international estimates suggest that at least one in six people will at some stage fall victim to an office bully,” said Dr Gillian Mooney, teaching and learning manager at The Independent Institute of Education.

She said workplace bullying takes a huge toll not only on the person on the receiving end, but also on teams, divisions and even the company as a whole.

“Workplace bullying affects the target both mentally and physically, and will almost certainly impact on motivation and productivity. Psychologically, bullying causes heightened stress levels and often leads to depression, breakdowns, poor concentration, compromised memory, insecurity, irritability, and even post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“Physically, those on the receiving end of bullying may suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, lowered resistance to colds and flu, high blood pressure, migraines, hormonal disturbances, thyroid problems, skin irritations, stomach ulcers and substance abuse.”

Dr Mooney said that toxic team members cause a drop in productivity and organisational health, due to increased absenteeism and staff turnover, more accidents, bad customer service, higher costs for employee assistance programmes, and decreased motivation and morale.

“It is essential to remember that workplace bullying affects both the target and those who witness the bullying. For example, a researcher in the United Kingdom, Dr Charlotte Rayner, found that almost a quarter of people who witness workplace bullying will search for new employment,” she said.

Dr Mooney added that while legitimate and constructive criticism should be considered as positive and par for the course in the workplace, companies and individuals should not allow bullies to continue down their path of destruction.

“Legitimate criticism occurs in a positive, non-threatening manner, and typically includes helpful methods for you to improve your work. In contrast, bullying occurs in a negative manner and is abusive – either overtly or subtly.

“A workplace bully may make unreasonable demands, use techniques such as verbal abuse which includes cursing, shouting, gossiping and constant undermining of the target, or tactics such as intimidation, degradation, isolation and humiliation,” said Dr Mooney.

She said both employees and employers can and should take steps to address bullying in the workplace.

Steps for bullied individuals include:

  •  Determining whether criticism is warranted

If you cannot distinguish between criticism and bullying, ask a trusted co-worker.

  •  Speaking to others about the problem

Ask for help from a colleague who has been with the company for a long time, who may have greater insight into the company’s policies, procedures and any precedent.

  •  Logging and escalating behaviour

Bullies are often guilty of gaslighting, which means that you may start to doubt yourself and your observations. Therefore, you should keep a log of all incidents, including dates, times and context. Then approach your direct manager or HR department with your concerns and evidence.

  •  Moving on

Unfortunately, victims of bullying often seek friendlier pastures elsewhere. If you are in the position to find work elsewhere, and if your attempts to address the bullying behaviour were not successful, ditching the toxic environment is a legitimate course of action and should not be seen as running away. However, before you resign be sure to consult with a lawyer regarding your rights.

Steps for employers include:

  •  Being pro-active

There is a lot that employers can do to prevent bullying from happening in the first place. It is in the best interest of the company to make it very clear from the outset that bullying will not be tolerated, by establishing codes of conduct and ensuring all employees understand what is expected of them.

Regular staff assessments are also helpful, particularly 360-degree reviews, as they are likely to reveal patterns of bullying.

  •  Keeping accurate records

Employers should ensure that all complaints are made in writing, which ultimately protects the rights of all parties. The target is not likely to put exaggerations into writing and management will have a written record of exactly what the complaint is, while being able to spot developing patterns sooner rather than later.

  •  Responding effectively and promptly

All complaints should be taken seriously, and investigated without delay. The alleged perpetrators should be given the opportunity to respond to the accusations, and once a determination is made, disciplinary action, where warranted, should follow in line with company procedures. In addition to punitive steps, professional help should also be provided for victims and teams in general, to create a more harmonious and positive work environment.

Dr Mooney said that if a bully at work is causing someone to feel miserable about going to the office every day of their life, victims should address the matter as a priority.

“The problem will not go away on its own, and you can’t spend your days, months and years tolerating the intolerable. Ultimately, it is not only your career that will suffer, but also your health, your well being and even your family.”

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