It’s a tough problem to solve, but with 40% of Canadian workers experiencing bullying at work in the last six months it’s something HR needs to get to grips with.
Bullying at work can look very different to the schoolyard tactics we associate with the word. It can include withholding information, excluding someone from meetings, as well as threats and intimidation, according to University of Windsor assistant professor Jacqueline Power, who has spent years researching bullies in the workplace. She found that 40% of Canadians have experienced one or more acts of workplace bullying at least once a week for the last six months.
The Canadian Safety Council reports that 75% of victims of bullying leave their jobs and that workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment or workplace discrimination.
"It leads to higher turnover and higher rates of sickness," Power said. "It reduces people’s levels of self-confidence."
Power said workplace bullying is "virtually never reported" to management – partly because people don’t think they will get the support they’re looking for.
It can be difficult to differentiate bullying from general negative behaviours, but the difference is in the intention behind the actions.
“Sadly we will all be exposed to negative behaviour at one time or another,” said Helge Hoel, a professor of organizational behaviour at Manchester Business School and a recognised international expert on bullying in the workplace.
“But defining someone as a bully from the outset can be risky and can prompt the perpetrator to become very defensive, often leading to further implications for the victim,” he adds. “It is important that the perpetrator is aware of the effect their behaviour has, and cannot hide behind the idea that ‘they did not know’.”
While children are told they should stand up to the bully, Power’s research found that leads to escalation of the problem, rather than improving the situation.
"Your best bet is to quit your job. If you absolutely can’t do that, be passive. If you actively work (against) a bully ... it will get worse,” Power said.
Advice for the victim:
Ask for help
Whether from a supportive manager or coworker, or a friend outside the workplace. According to research from the UK’s Trade Union Congress, the more people know about the bullying, the less like it is to flourish.
Keep track of behaviour that is unacceptable so if it comes to a “he said, she said” situation, you have documentation to back up your experiences.
Advice for HR:
The most important component of any workplace prevention program is management commitment. A well-communicated written policy including a clear statement about what types of behaviour are unacceptable can go a long way to preventing problems.
Encourage reporting of incidents and have a confidential process for reporting. Ensure there are no reprisals for making a report, and have a clear procedure for investigating and resolving complaints.
Help employees understand what bullying looks like and the risks to victims and the workplace. Ensure line managers understand and can recognize bullying so they can take appropriate steps to protect their teams.
Don’t delay reacting or dismiss accusations that may seem trivial. A small intervention early on can help prevent long term effects.
For more information visit the CCOHS Workplace Bullying page.