It is unusual for everyone in a workplace to be the best of friends at all times. Disagreements can arise, tempers can fray and argumentscan be started over the smallest of issues. Sometimes we have to deal with a difficult boss. And most of us have the occasional bad day at work where it feels like everyone is against us.
But if you or a colleague are being repeatedly ridiculed, targeted or openly harassed by another member of staff, the situation goes beyond a disagreement and becomes workplace bullying.
What is workplace bullying?
Bullying in the workplacecan take on many forms, some of which are easily identifiable and others which are more covert in nature. It’s not uncommon to not realise what is happening right away if you are the target of bullying at work.
Obvious forms of workplace bullying involve:
Spreading malicious rumours
Denying holidays or training opportunities for no reason
Less obvious forms of workplace bullying include:
Constant nit-picking and fault-finding of a trivial nature
Not giving appropriate credit or praise for good work
Undermining or belittling someone in front of others
Not including someone in normal workplace conversations or activities
Repeatedly disallowing meaningful work in favour of menial tasks
Giving someone too much or too little to do
Increasing responsibility while reducing authority
Withholding information to prevent someone from doing their job properly
In the early stages of being bullied at work, the victim may feel that they are at fault and will attempt to work harder or behave in a way which reduces the unfair behaviour of the bully. This unfortunately gives the bully the means to control the victim further, increasing their ability to manipulate.
What affect does workplace bullying have on a victim?
Victims of harassment in the workplace may experience a range of physical symptoms, including:
The victim’s relationships with their family and friends can also suffer as a result of bullying. In extreme cases, workplace bullying can even lead to symptoms not dissimilar to those associated with PTSD. Victims may develop a workphobia and feel terrified of the same thing happening again at a different workplace.
Research from CIPD showed that, on average, individuals who had experienced bullying took seven days more sick leave per year than those who had never been bullied. This could potentially lead to millions of workdays a year being lost due to workplace bullying.
How can you spot a “workplace bully”?
Sometimes workplace bullies (particularly individuals in senior roles) will use the guise of being a ‘good manager’ to dissuade people from feeling that their harsh behaviour is acceptable.
But there are some key differences between being a good manager and being a bully.
A good manager will look at all the potential reasons for poor performance in a staff member, including systems, training and equipment. A bully will make no attempt to do this.
A good manager will listen to the views of a team or an individual in sorting out a performance issue. A bully will not do this.
A good manager will agree a new system of working with their team before imposing it on all staff. A bully will impose new standards without discussion.
A good manager will involve team members in agreeing on monitoring processes and outcomes. A bully will not agree standards and will monitor staff as they see fit, meaning that team members are left in the dark as to how they are being appraised.
A good manager will recognise and reward improvements in performance and behaviour. A bully will ensure that, as there are no agreed monitoring processes, it is impossible to tell when standards have improved so rewards and recognition are random and open to favouritism.
Why do people become bullies in the workplace?
Research has shown that there are rarely strict definitions for who might become a bully and who might become a victim. Sometimes a bully won’t realise that they are exhibiting bullying behaviour and other times they will be very aware of how they are affecting other people. In thinking about why bullying occurs, it is more helpful to think about the situations and circumstances in which the behaviour may arise.
People may exhibit bullying behaviours if they feel someone poses a threat to their position or status. They may attempt to bully someone to divert attention away from their own shortcomings or to avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour. If a workplace fosters a particularly competitive atmosphere, it could be that the bully has correctly ascertained that they will be rewarded for aggressive and unpleasant behaviour.
If you feel that you may be being bullied but you’re not sure, ask yourself these questions.
1. Do you feel isolated?
A victim feels excluded from what’s happening at work and is denied information and support necessary to do their job properly. They will likely receive little to no help from their manager. They may be overloaded with work or have important tasks taken away and replaced with menial jobs. They will rarely be spoken to directly by the bully who will often refuse to communicate and send instructions by email, memo or post-it notes.
2. Do you feel you are being singled out?
A victim may feel their job description isn’t clear and they are frequently being given unrealistic goals. They may feel they are being encouraged to feel that they are always the one at fault and have their explanations ridiculed or dismissed. They may also be subject to excessive monitoring or micromanagement.
3. Do you feel punished?
A victim may be invited to ‘informal’ meetings which turn out to be disciplinary in nature. They may face disciplinary action over trivial or even false charges. In extreme cases, they may be coerced into resigning.
5 Ways to Manage Workplace Bullying
Many victims of workplace bullying choose to leave rather than attempt to tackle the problem head on. Working in a small company, a company which has no obvious anti-bullying policies, or a company which fosters an aggressive and competitive atmosphere can all add to a victim’s stress levels and make them feel it isn’t worth continuing.
If you feel you are being bullied at work, here are some tips to help you before things get too much.
1. Take yourself seriously.
Once you’ve established that bullying is taking place, be prepared to take action. Don’t second-guess yourself or convince yourself that if you work harder it will stop. Bullies often operate on the basis that they won’t be caught, so don’t play into their hands. And don’t forget you have rights. Looking into employment law can help you realise that your wellbeing is indeed serious.
2. Tell the bully to stop.
This isn’t always easy, especially if the behaviour is covert, but if someone is calling you names, spreading rumours or behaving aggressively towards you, calmly tell them that you don’t appreciate their behaviour and ask them to stop. This will give them a chance to reflect on what they are doing before things go any further.
3. Write down your thoughts and keep evidence.
The more organised you can be about holding the bully to account, the better. Keep a diary of events and keep hold of any incriminating emails, texts or voice messages. This will prevent things from getting too personal when it comes time to tell someone.
If you have a colleague you trust, tell them how you are feeling and show them your evidence. If you feel comfortable to do so, tell your line manager. Or, if you are being bullied by your line manager, go above their head to someone more senior. Keep your statements short and free of any emotive words or phrases.
5. Think about when to quit
If action is not taken when you have told the appropriate people, you may have to think about another way to do things. Is it worth it to try and hang on to your job, or would you rather make the leap into something better? No one wants to walk away when they’ve done nothing wrong. But if leaving is the best decision for you in the long run, work to see it as a positive over judging yourself as failing when really you are dealing with something out of your control.
Becoming a target of bullying behaviour is never the fault of the victim. It may be true that people who are shy or exhibit signs of low self-esteem can easily become victims, however the bullying behaviour can only thrive in an environment which accepts it as the norm. It is also equally likely for someone who is happy, competent, popular or successful to become a target of someone who feels they are a threat. In other words, don’t blame yourself. Instead, take care of yourself.
How to deal with workplace bullying and harassment