The impacts of workplace bullying run deep and wide

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.

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Workplace bullying impacts the entire organization.

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.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/workplace-bullying-a-major-concern-in-canada-says-woman-who-sued-wal-mart-1.2673109

https://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/articles/texas-employment-labor-law/texas-employment-labor-law-lawsuits-9-20146.html

https://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/articles/texas-employment-labor-law/interview-texas-employment-labor-law-2-20034.html

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10 Best Practices in the Workplace Restoration Process

A workplace harassment investigation can be a traumatic event which affects not only those directly involved, but often causes extensive collateral damage.  A healing process which helps staff feel heard and acknowledged is a very important step for re-establishing or rebuilding workplace norms.

Restoring norms following a harassment investigation is an important step.

Restoring norms following an harassment investigation is an important step.

Following a discussion about the role the of the investigation and the purpose and goals of the Workplace Restoration, participants at a recent Workplace Fairness lunch identified 10 best practices.  Whether an investigation is founded or unfounded these are important steps:

  1. Facilitate, when appropriate, a confidential written agreement between the complainant and the respondent that is separate from performance measures.
  2. Provide regular and ongoing feedback to all staff.
  3. Ensure leadership is visible and committed to “say” and “do” accountability.
  4. Support leadership to share and acknowledge ownership of contributing factors.
  5. Follow up with the team and others affected to develop a plan and strategy with common goals and processes for the group.
  6. Facilitate a safe dialogue to re-establish the norms of respect and dignity by asking questions, creating a common language, and ensure the experience is normalized for all affected.
  7. Provide skill-building support for supervisors and those involved through training and 1-on-1 coaching, focusing on listening skills and “I language”.
  8. Maintain a forward-looking aspect to the restoration process.
  9. Appoint a new neutral facilitator who was not involved in the investigation and ensure impartiality in all follow-up dialogue.
  10. Ensure a restorative and healing process which allows all to be acknowledged for their experiences.

We would love your comments! Do you have anything to add? join the discussion below.

Workplace bullying is prevalent and costly

The following is  guest post from Michelle Phaneuf:

Workplace bullying is prevalent in our workplaces and is a serious issue that costs corporations significantly in lost time and money due to absenteeism, staff turnover, and medical and legal costs. Studies indicate workplace bullying is a result of conflict escalation and instituting a third party Ombudsman office as an informal conflict resolution channel is an ideal way to tackle this issue.

Jorge is working the night shift. Over six months ago he had a conflict with one of his co-workers who insisted that Jorge was taking over his duties. The co-worker involved the manager who decided that the co-worker was mistaken and that he and Jorge were to continue with their present duties.

Because of confidentiality concerns, the manager did not bring this issue forward to Jorge. Since the manager’s decision Jorge began experiencing on-going bullying behaviours by his co-worker and others in the department. They would play demeaning pranks on him throughout the night, call him names and shun him during breaks. Jorge’s manager works during the day and Jorge is reluctant to report the behaviour and decides he will ignore it and it will eventually stop. This is not the case and he begins to dread coming to work, experiences anxiety attacks and his work performance deteriorates. Jorge eventually leaves because he can’t take it anymore, believes he is being weak but saves face by indicating to the organization that he has found another job.

The costs of workplace bullying can be mitigated with an ombudsman

Early intervention through an ombudsman office can address bullying in the workplace and prevent costly escalation.

Studies show that presented with a list of possible triggers of bullying, unresolved conflicts belonged to the top five most indicated causes of bullying (Zapf, 1999). Likewise, departments with many bullying incidents showed an unhealthy work environment with more conflicts as compared to departments with few bullying incidents (Agervold, 2009). Similarly, investigating the relative strength of a broad range of organizational causes of bullying (i.e. job stressors, leadership behaviour and organizational climate), interpersonal conflicts proved to be one of the strongest predictors of being a target of bullying (Hauge et al., 2007). These results align with Ayoko and colleagues (2003) who, by means of a multi-method approach, found that conflict incidents successfully predicted workplace bullying; and with Baillien and De Witte (2009) who observed that bullying among Belgian employees was predicted by a high number of conflicts in the team.

New findings from Baillien, Bollen and De Witte (2011) indicate that organizations can prevent workplace bullying through their reaction to conflicts. Specifically, organizations can establish problem solving behaviours and discourage forcing as a way to solve conflicts. This may, for example, be accomplished by specific training sessions for managers and their employees on how to deal with conflicts and by stressing the importance of addressing conflicts in a collaborative instead of a competitive way.