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Workplace Bullying – one strike and you’re out?

Consider the following:

– A manager withholds information from an employee that they need in order to do their job;

– An employee constantly tells a colleague to ‘shut the f— up’;

– A team leader hides an employee’s work phone, and then they along with everyone in the team laugh as the staff member spends all morning looking for it;

– A manager assigns one of their sales reps impossible sales targets, then gives them a written warning when they don’t reach them.

What do these scenarios have in common? Whilst varied in terms of their degree of severity, they all constitute workplace bullying. The Department of Workplace Health and Safety defines workplace bullying as “the repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates a worker.”

Unfortunately the fact is that you have probably come across bullying in the workplace during the course of your career.  You might have seen it, heard it, or experienced it first hand but as HR professionals or business owners my guess is your experience has been in the unpleasant task of receiving and investigating such a complaint.

So let’s say you’ve gone through the investigation, confirmed that allegations of bullying are accurate, and now you have the tricky business of deciding what the outcome is going to be, and sometimes, whether or not the behaviour warrants termination.  Here are some things you need to consider:

  • Is the behaviour definitely in the category of workplace bullying, or should it be treated as something different? For example, two team members that have different styles of communication and become easily frustrated with each other are probably not ‘bullying’ each other but rather just need their manager to implement strategies to improve their communication skills and working relationship. In order to determine the consequences for the behaviour, you need to decide what the behaviour actually is, first.
  • Secondly, if it is considered to be bullying behaviour, what has been the impact on employees, the business, and customers as a result of the bullying? What would the impact be if it were allowed to continue? Basically, how severe is the behaviour and how serious are the consequences for everyone involved?
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what is the response of the individual found to have perpetrated the bullying? Do they acknowledge their behaviour as inappropriate, display an understanding of the consequences of their actions, and express a willingness to change? Or do they minimize their actions, pass it off as a joke, and accuse the victim of overreacting?  You should be very cautious in your assessment of the likelihood of a bully changing their behaviour if they don’t think anything is wrong with it in the first place.

So let’s say you decide not to terminate this individual. You find that it was a one-off incident on a bad hair day, or that they are willing to change their behaviour, and all affected employees can continue to work together. But how do you really do this successfully, and make it work in the long term?

The individual found guilty of the bullying behaviour must clearly demonstrate two things:

  • Firstly, there needs to be a full realization that their behaviour did constitute bullying and an understanding of the seriousness of their behaviour and the resulting consequences.
  • Secondly, this person must show that they are willing to stop bullying, change their behaviour, and learn new strategies to communicate with their colleagues.

Communication channels need to remain open and honest. The individual trying to change their bullying ways needs to receive clear and consistent messages about why their behaviour cannot continue. We have heard everything, from a slightly wishy-washy ‘I know you didn’t mean it but they took it that way’ to the much worse ‘it’s OK, I know they’re being oversensitive’. Instead what they need to hear is ‘this behaviour is not OK, and this is why it’s not OK.’ Anything less and you’re really doing that person a disservice, as they aren’t being helped to learn.

Finally, it’s important to understand any other factors that may have contributed to the bullying behaviour. For example, a manager trying to motivate his staff by threatening them needs to be taught new strategies to motivate their team. Or a team member who gets easily angry when a colleague makes a mistake might need a qualified professional to assist them to develop new skills to better regulate their emotions. Remember – bullying doesn’t occur unaided, in isolation. It usually means that at some point bystanders have done nothing, the bullying behaviour has been ignored or implicitly condoned, and the bully doesn’t realise the severity of their behaviour, all of which are indicative of a potentially wider issue. HR managers and business owners dealing with a bullying complaint would be prudent to look at the bigger picture in order to identify any cultural issues with the organisation.

The key point here is that if the individual is to continue to work successfully in the business, the bullying behaviour needs to be directly addressed. Reforming a workplace bully is a relatively new concept. Previously businesses would, depending on the severity of the behaviour, either terminate the individual or just issue them a warning and move on. However as we talked about earlier, if a bully is going to remain with the organisation they must be willing to change their behaviour, be communicated with clearly, and be able to work with HR/Business owners to tackle any other factors have contributed to their behaviour.

The types of programs that are most successful at changing bullying behaviour are typically those that offer a personalised structure. They are usually psycho-educational in their approach, focusing on providing information combined with individual counselling and intervention, before introducing alternative strategies for problem solving, communication and conflict resolution.

Here at HR Gurus we have been working on an exciting new program to help you reform a workplace bully, allowing them to go on and hopefully have a successful career within your organisation. Head to our website here to ask us questions, give us feedback, or find out more
about how we can help.

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