We had a great conversation last week at our Workplace Fairness Lunch facilitated by Wendy Giuffre and Marilynn Balfour of Wendy Ellen Inc. We had many different participant perspectives on the subject or workplace bullying coming from the organizational viewpoint, the HR viewpoint, and an Ombuds veiwpoint. Experience as the witness and the target also provided valuable insight.
In Canada, harassment is very well defined as a violation of human rights, protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Workplace bullying is less clearly defined, and is addressed under occupational health and safety. In 2009, the Ontario government introduced Bill 168, an amendment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which places clear obligations on employers to keep workplaces free of bullying. The Government of Alberta provides resources and services to address workplace bullying though has stopped short of enshrining employer obligations in legislation.
Bullying is psychological harassment affecting an individual’s dignity, psychological or physical well-being. The test for workplace bullying usually include 2 measures: if the acts are repeated over a period of time, and if the acts are targeted. Acts of bullying can include spreading rumours, intimidation, social isolation, offensive jokes, belittling or inappropriately changing of work rules or tasks. Some of the acts are obvious, and some are more covert. 1 in 6 people have reported being bullied at work and many of the perpetrators, up to 80%, are bosses with good connections in the halls of power. Targets themselves are shown in research to be confident and intelligent individuals with a strong ethic, but who also are vulnerable.
There are certainly psychological as well as physical impacts to those being bullied. Pat Ferris, a Calgary psychologist who has worked extensively with workplace bullying targets, observes that targets use language similar to those who have experienced domestic abuse to describe the impact. Impact can include shock, anger, panic and anxiety, sleeplessness as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and loss of appetite. One participant at our recent lunch asked a great question about this – What are the psychological and physiological impacts for the bully? We have many assumptions about the intents, actions and motivations of a bully. It is difficult to be sympathetic.
Many questions surfaced from our luncheon participants: How can parties build self-awareness and help bullies understand the impact on others and themselves? How do you help a leader understand the negative impact of their behaviour and motivate them to change their behaviour? Coaching has been used to build awareness. One recommended strategy is to ask questions of the leader around their impacted sphere of influence. Research demonstrates that a great stressor for bullies is a perceived lack of control and lack of self-confidence.
There is a high financial cost for an organization – in turnover, productivity and absenteeism. (You can explore this further with the cost-of-conflict tool on our website.) Even faced with the numbers from the calculator, organizations may be skeptical about the high financial impact. At the organizational level there is often a gap in the culture as perceived by management and by employees. With best intentions, an organization may set out to establish values of collaboration and transparency. However, if that same organization has a structure strongly rooted in hierarchies it may create a disconnect between what employees are experiencing and what the organization is hoping to create. This can become a stressor for employees. The contradictions and uncertainty of such an environment create a perfect petri dish for inappropriate workplace behaviour, including bullying.
Wendy and Marilynn had some good suggestions for addressing bullying in the workplace.
What the corporations can do:
- Create policies and respectful practices
- Increase awareness through education
- Educate leaders to identify signs
- Provide resources for targets, including counseling
- Investigate complaints in a timely and impartial manner
- Improve leadership capability and competence
What individuals can do:
- Be courageous – intervene if a witness
- Understand what bullying is
- Understand why people are targets and the impact
- Listen to the targets
- Petition for an anti-bullying policy in your workplace
If you are a target:
- Keep a diary, recording specifics of date, time and events
- Continue to do your job to the best of your ability
- Seek support from your Employee Assistance Provider, your manager, or your union.
Though we ran out of time, Wendy and Marilynn provided some links to news articles about bullying cases in Canada and the US. They illustrate the very real impact, and the risks employers take if they do not treat bullying seriously.