Bullying in the workplace

I didn’t mean it, it’s just your imagination, You’re too sensitive …


Bullying in the workplace – fact or fantasy?


So, how big an issue is workplace bullying?  The victims would say “huge”, the perpetrators would say “It’s just office banter, nothing was meant by it.”


The facts: in a recent study 47% of people report they have witnessed workplace bullying, and a third of employees report being the victim of bullying. It is estimated that this results in 18 million working days lost every year which costs business more than £5 billion per year and has an impact on the UK economy of £1.3 billion per year.


Fantasy? I don’t think so.


This is an issue for business, a real issue. The statistic of a third of employees reporting being a victim of bullying is double what it was twelve years ago. The issue is more prevalent now than ever before.  In today’s current economic climate, UK business cannot afford NOT to take this issue seriously.  When I was working with FTSE 250 companies in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s on their Corporate Social Responsibility, the one thing CEO’s said kept them awake at night was: Reputation, Reputation, Reputation. It would appear that the “reputation” is focussed purely on external perception and ignoring internal conflicts. Companies have to get their own house in order to be able to successfully, and with authenticity and integrity, communicate externally that they are a good place to work.


On a personal level the impacts of bullying are huge.  As indicated above, it results in an estimated 18 million working days lost to UK business every year. Workplace stress is the commonest reason for lost days. Bullying affects a person’s ability to think clearly, undertake their role with maximum efficiency, communicate effectively with colleagues, managers and customers and minimize mistakes. What bullying does exceptionally well is ensure people perform badly in their role, struggle to build and maintain effective relationships at work, are unhappy and disengaged employees and have an excess of days sick every year.  Is this a scenario any company would be happy to endorse? 


An employee could join a company with full confidence in their ability to carry out their role, with exceptional talent and expertise. If that person is the victim of bullying, in a frighteningly short period of time, they can turn into a dysfunctional employee, withdrawn, ineffective and a poor team player. The impact on an individual’s confidence levels is huge and very, very rapid. A lot of workplace bullying is ‘invisible’, which creates further problems for the victim. The most common bully is the Passive Aggressive. The person who uses sarcasm, verbal ‘put downs’, silence, lack of delegation and insidious remarks communicated on the quiet. This behavior is sneaky, underhand, cowardly in the extreme and spreads like the most virulent bacteria through an organization.  Because of the underhand nature of this type of bullying, it isn’t immediately obvious what is happening. Therefore, a very upbeat and confident person can find themselves within a few months becoming a quivering wreck and wondering what on earth happened to them. It is the ‘drip, drip, drip’ effect of passive aggressive bullying that is so dangerous. Other people are likely to be unaware of what is going on, so the victim can feel isolated and may begin to doubt their own sanity, finally believing that it must be all their fault, thus allowing the perpetrator to get away with it.


Tackling workplace bullying is not an easy thing to do for an individual. But the main point to remember is this. It isn’t personal. Ever. The underlying emotion the bully is experiencing is that of fear. They fear their own worth and value, as a human being and as a colleague/manager/employee.  As all bullies are cowards, rather than having the moral courage to look inwards and take responsibility for their own lives, they will lash out at others. Usually they will lash out at the very people they feel threatened by, as they are intimidated by the skill and talent of the victim. So, if you find yourself on the receiving end of a bully, know with every cell of your being that the reason they have picked on you is because you are better than them on every level and you have pressed all their buttons of lack of self-worth, self-belief and inner confidence.


The way to tackle the bully is to find your centre. By that I mean your centre of assertiveness. Most people go through life swinging from passive to aggressive. They either keep quiet and internalize all their feelings, seething on the inside and feel resentment and anger, or swing to the other extreme, losing their temper and verbally attacking (and sometimes physically attacking). That pendulum swing of emotions is exhausting and can eventually manifest in physical symptoms within the body.


Ask yourself this question: how much of your power do you give away during the course of a day on situations over which you have no control? Most people expend far too much energy trying to change the things they cannot change and ignore the situations they can change. This is crazy making in the extreme.


The situation itself is not causing you stress or angst, it is your reaction that is causing the stress.  And it is your reaction that you are in control of. There is a wonderful quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, I use whenever I am running confidence and assertiveness workshops: “No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”


The bully cannot have any impact on you at all if you don’t give them your permission. So ask yourself why you give them permission, what is it within yourself that you could change. Can you increase your own feelings of self-confidence and value, are you able to firmly stand in the centre of your power with compassion and strength. If you are, then the bully has nowhere to go. They will get within a certain radius of your energy and will crash into a wall of gentle yet firm resistance. Their attempts to derail you will then bounce back to them. The way to tackle bullying from a personal level is to work on your own inner confidence and self-worth. No-one can bully you, put you down or get the upper hand if you don’t let them. Know this, live by this and communicate this message with your strong, grounded and confident inner core.


What can companies do to tackle this issue? Well, firstly, admit they have a problem and resist behaving like an ostrich. Only once an issue has been brought into the open and the admission communicated that is exists, is it possible to deal with it effectively. Complacency and ignorance are never going to be valid reasons or excuses and companies hide behind their ignorance at their peril.  If companies truly wish to be investors in their people, then having good policies and guidelines in place is simply not enough, that is paying lip service to the ideal. Real investors in people tackle the difficult issues head on with conviction and dedication. Real investors in people have the moral courage to make the tough decisions, live by them and follow through. One of those tough decisions is admitting they have a problem with workplace bullying. Then, they take action to deal with the problem. 


One of the ways this can be done is having a bullying and harassment policy in place that is adequately and effectively communicated to all staff on a regular basis, it forms part of all induction programs and is regularly reviewed and amended where appropriate. However, having a policy is just the first step. You actually have to do something with it! Take all accusations of bullying seriously, but do not automatically come down hard on the perpetrator. Take time to find out what is behind their behavior, simply getting rid of a person or disciplining them is moving the problem, not changing the behavior. For long term and effective change to take place, the issue needs to be examined, the bully may need extra support at work and it is their feelings of inadequacy and panic that is creating their behavior, there may be personal issues affecting their performance at work and they deal with that conundrum by lashing out. Once all potential reasons and explanations have been investigated, support has been offered and given and reviews have been carried out, if the person is still being a bully, then and only then, should other actions take place. This is when a very clear disciplinary procedure needs to be adhered to. Unacceptable behavior is just that, unacceptable, and there is never a justifiable reason to allow it to continue once all other avenues have been explored.


A values survey would be a good place for a company to start if they are unsure of how they are perceived by their employees. I take companies through a values survey and it is a wonderfully effective and powerful way to gain a snap shot of how the company is truly viewed by the employees and not how they think they are perceived. It produces a tangible result where appropriate action plans can be formulated.


Confidence in the workplace is more than personal confidence.  It is confidence that the employer has the courage to tackle the difficult issues with conviction and determination, confidence that this is an environment where individuals can grow and shine, confidence that together all employees can create the collective tipping point that will enable the company to flourish and blossom.


The command and control style of leadership and a bullying culture may get a company through when times are good, but does not build up a bank of loyalty with employees, so when times get tough it is far more challenging to survive. If companies embrace a culture of communication, inclusion, dignity and respect, the tough times will be a lot less tough, that bank of loyalty will see you through.


In today’s tough economic climate, which company do you want to run or work for?


About Katie Day

Katie Day is a published author, established trainer, consultant, business coach and speaker experienced in working with all sectors. She is fully trained and accredited to deliver a range of personality profiling tools to assist individuals and organizations with their personal and corporate development, communications, team building and leadership expertise.

Katie is the Winner of WEConnect International, Global Pitch Competition, Philadelphia 2014. Her new Book, The High-heeled Leader, is available on Amazon.


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