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Preventing Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying in the workplace comes with a wide range of adverse consequences, ranging from low morale and lowered productivity, to high rates of employee attrition, employer brand and culture damage. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult for many businesses to clearly identify and address.

Because the offenders are often close co-workers or direct superiors, bullied employees often don’t report incidents for fear of reprisals or being labelled as a troublemaker at work. Instead, they withdraw, become less productive and often leave the company altogether.

Identifying Bullying

A workplace bully is a caricature that closely resembles the stereotype of a schoolyard bully. In the real world, however, bullying may be much less obvious and more difficult to clearly pin down. Bullying at work, as defined by the Fair Work Act 2009, occurs when:

  • a person or a group of people behaves unreasonably and repeatedly towards a worker or a group of workers while at work, and
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner, however, may include aggressive and intimidating conduct, belittling or humiliating comments, victimisation, spreading malicious rumours, practical jokes or initiations, exclusion from work-related events, and unreasonable work expectations.

Is Bullying a Cultural Issue?

Businesses often embrace the idea of building an exceptional workplace culture. Highly competitive, sales-driven organisations where employees compete amongst one another will create a more competitive culture. However, this can devolve into a toxic and adversarial company culture, wherein employees don’t communicate for fear of losing personal credit for their work and ideas, and managers view themselves as “winners”, who have fought their way to the top, instead of leaders who have a responsibility to their team and their employer. This kind of toxic culture tacitly encourages abusive behaviour and makes it easy to dismiss abuse as character-building “tough love”.

Deciding What To Do

Of course, many businesses still do try to combat bullying. However, because of this cultural aspect, identifying bullying, launching investigations, and disciplining or removing offenders is often very difficult. When an environment creates and encourages bullies, trying to address them individually is inefficient at best.

Clearly Communicate Conduct Expectations

To begin to curb bullying as a cultural feature, businesses need to start by implementing a clear and detailed code of conduct or a workplace bullying policy. This should be specific, identifying and defining different forms of harassment and bullying. It should also provide a clear course of action for victims of bullying to allow for easy reporting that doesn’t identify them to their bullies. More than anything else, this will communicate to employees what kinds of behaviour are not considered acceptable or professional in the workplace

Respond to Bullying as it Happens

It’s difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to launch an investigation for bullying. HR professionals should take steps to proactively resolve incidents informally where possible. This means keeping records of reports and opening a dialogue with accused bullies about their behaviour, and what is expected of them.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that investigations aren’t necessary. Businesses need to treat allegations of bullying seriously. Depending on the type of behaviour reported, a thorough investigation and discipline action may be appropriate.

Creating a Better Company Culture

The key to eliminating chronic bullying is to shape a company culture that naturally discourages bullying behaviour, reinforced through training. This means finding ways to encourage collaboration and a team mentality that’s supported by a larger community in the workplace. There are many policies that can be implemented to accomplish this, but the overarching company culture is a good place to get started. It is equally important to run regular training sessions and equip managers with the tools to be able to effectively handle complaints of bullying.

Create a Mentally Healthy Workplace

According to a recent study conducted by UTS & The University of Sydney (Mentally healthy workplaces: a return-on-investment study, 2017), the return on investment of a mentally healthy workplace is up to four dollars for every dollar spent. Mentally healthy workplaces enjoy:

  • healthier and more engaged workers
  • increased work quality and productivity
  • attracting and keeping good staff
  • a positive workplace culture
  • reduced absenteeism – regularly staying away from work due to feeling mentally unwell
  • reduced presenteeism – being less productive at work due to feeling mentally unwell
  • reduced rehabilitation and workers’ compensation claims costs.

Create a Group Reward Structure

Bullying is often a way that employees compete with each other in order to gain recognition and advancement. A simple way to deal with this is to reward entire teams instead of individuals. Instead of attempting to stand out alone, this will encourage employees to collaborate and work as a team.

Bullying isn’t something that can be solved easily with a seminar or the threat of punitive measures. Rather, chronic bullying issues in the workplace are a symptom of a toxic company culture. To fight it, businesses need to take control of that culture and shape it into something better.

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