Who is Bullying Who?

We read stories about bullies in schools harassing other students.

Parents of the bullied kids would usually take up the matter with the school authorities. The parents of the bullies would be called to answer for their offspring’s unsocial behaviour. Schools have been known to take stern measures that include the expulsion of bullies from schools.

In this instalment, we shall be focusing on the bullying phenomena.

Wait, I am not going to be discussing what you should do as a parent in respect of the bullying in your child’s school, I am rather focusing on the bullying that happens in organisations, with grown adults being bullied by their peers.

Let us go into your organisation to check if bullying happens in the day-to-day interaction of colleagues. Bullying behaviour manifests in a number of ways, which include, among others, discourteous communication.

Discourteous communication is usually carried through emails that are written at the spur of the moment, copied to the “entire universe”. One of my former leaders described the prevalence of rude emails as Star Wars, meaning wars that one fights in cyber space without facing the opponent eye-to-eye.

In almost all of the cases, the rude emails come from one with a higher authority than that of the receiver. When such emails are exchanged between peers of equal stature and authority, someone in higher authority usually “sponsors” the sender. The easiest way to check out this “corporate sponsor” on whose authority the bully relies on, a usual tell-tale sign is that the “sponsor” would be copied in email conversation thread.

The old school playground type of aggressive or frightening behaviour such as swearing, shouting, intimidation by threatening violence do also find their way into the workplace. The threat of violence is common in male work gangs where alpha male masculinity dominates. There are leaders who believe that they have to get people to “get-off- their backsides-and-get-on-with-some-work”. I am focusing on the vociferous bosses who find it easy to raise their voices in every interaction with their team.

Early in my career, I was once in a customer-facing job. The most frustrating thing in that role was that the then boss was given to screaming at all customer-facing-team members in the presence of the customers. We were still fresh out of school and were easily frightened. I remember the series of errors that we committed in the wake of the confusion following the brouhaha from the boss. The bigger boss was fully aware of our plight yet he turned, not a blind eye, but “blind eyes”. I celebrated the day I was transferred from the “shouter”’s branch.

Each individual deserves his or her own privacy, that is commonly accepted by many. Privacy is a fundamental human right; hence, we have laws around the globe in different jurisdictions that are promulgated to protect the access of information of private individuals. Being a leader does not give one the power to willingly invade the privacy of those under them.

Here is a simple test on the concept of privacy. Do you have private information about yourself that you would not want to share with colleagues in the workplace. I mean information about what you get up to in your private time. Your answer is “of course it’s obvious”; I thought as much. The simplest rule in observing other people’s right to privacy is to determine if what you seek to know about others is what you would not mind if they sought to know the same about you.

One of the occasions when leaders invade privacy in a manner tantamount to bullying is when their signature is required on requests relating to personal issues of a team member. Let us take an ordinary request such as applying for annual leave. Annual leave by its technical definition is paid rest time that accrues to employees who execute their duties over an employment period.

There are obviously rules about how one applies for leave. If the requirements of the application process are met, then it is incumbent on one who authorises to approve or disapprove. It could certainly be an invasion of privacy, hence bullying; if authorisation is to be granted only after a full explanation of the reason for such desired absence from work.

Such intrusion of privacy has been observed to be one of the main drivers of the tendency by employees to rather call in sick for a day or two successive days, as a doctor’s note is not always required.

Bullying will also occur among peers. It is prudent for a leader to check for signs of bullying among their team members. The bully would usually have extended tenure in their own job as those who are being bullied vote with their feet by leaving from the organisation. Let us do a quick check of how to identify bullies in your team.

The obvious bully is that team member who is forever in the boss’ office “updating” the boss about supposed errand behaviour by others. This individual has most probably over time had a fight with almost everyone in your company and usually with the expectation of the boss.

Let us refocus our attention to you as the leader. Has there been a circumstance when you felt the need to isolate or exclude a team member or colleague from material team meetings, activities or important decisions? You would have been a bully in such an instance.

You may be wondering what then does the all-inclusive list of bully behaviour in the workplace look like. The clinical answer to that question would be to define what bullying looks like.

A simple definition would look like this; bullying is the repeated, physical, mental health harming maltreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct, and or behaviours that include non-verbal forms, which are threatening, humiliating, intimidating; or cause interference on the execution of work.

The main driver of bullying from the perspective of the perpetrator is the desire to control another person’s behaviour, usually for one’s own needs, personal agenda, or any other self-serving motives. Bullies can be either subtle or not so subtle in the ways in which they wish to control others emotionally, psychologically and even physically.

Bullies are often extremely controlling people who exhibit domineering personality traits, which they use to exploit others. Most bullies tend to be self-proclaimed skilled readers of people’s minds; hence, they make it their task to understand someone’s imperfections to determine what techniques can be used against these colleagues.

Some cunning bullies even go a step further and disguise their bullying behind a charming and nice deportment and even an “honourable cause”.

Bullying tends to be more prevalent in labour intensive environments where employees work in teams such as field work, construction sites and factory environments and in the mines. However, even in the corporate office environments, bullying can still happen; remember my earlier example when I was in a customer-facing role in a corporate environment.

In order to control bullying in the workplace, it would be prudent to establish a Code of Conduct, which should form part of the Employees Handbook. A key aspect of such a code should be the expectation of respectful behaviour from all employees when dealing with colleagues.

Team members who are bullied should have recourse through a Grievance Procedure when aggrieved by the behaviours of others. It is common knowledge that there are more disciplinary process initiatives in which employees are charged for their infringements than there are grievances raised by employees against their bosses.

One of the drivers of this discrepancy is that one is usually bullied by a more senior colleague or a counterpart at the same post level supported by a more senior “sponsor”.

The reason bullying goes unchallenged in the workplace is that the individuals on the receiving end fear further victimisation and reprisals. The bullied will continue to be bullied unless there is a system that is designed to free their voices.

In Australia, there is a piece of legislation called The Fair Work Act 2009; designed to ensure fairness for all, balancing the power scales between the leaders and those being led.

This legislation was recently amended to include an anti-bullying provision that commenced on January 1 2014. This new bullying law enables a worker to make an application to the Royal Commission on Labour if they reasonably believe they are being bullied at work.

Organisations always take discipline seriously, and have usually feigned implementation of grievance procedures. A few organisations take little if any heed of bullying. Bullying is the secret smouldering fire that destroys teams.

Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). — samhlabati@gmail.com; Twitter handle: @samhlabati