Stories about workplace bullying are appearing more frequently in the media. It is no longer a concept confined to the schoolyard. But what is it? According to the Queensland Department of Occupational Health and Safety workplace bullying is defined 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".
No workplace is immune. It is a hidden cost of the workplace that could run to as much as $12B per annum in Australia according to some reports. But does its increased media profile represent an increased incidence? This is not clear. Some commentators argue that bullying has been a response to demands for increased productivity. Alternatively, it may be that a better-educated population recognises the inappropriateness of such behaviour and rights based legislation has encouraged them to speak up. Whatever the reason it appears that, similar to the naming of sexual harassment two decades ago, naming and describing the behaviour has brought discussion about workplace bullying into the open.
Some Local Research
This issue of Issues in Human Resource Management summarises some research conducted by Jan Stuart from Human Resources at UWA and Marie Finlay from Nexus Strategic Solutions during 2001. In order to better understand the impact of bullying behaviour on people and their organisations they conducted a survey that drew 267 responses both from targets and witnesses of bullying or 'negative workplace behaviour' as it was described in the survey instrument.
The respondents referred to experiences in organisations primarily in the higher education (55%) and the public sectors. For over half the behaviour had occurred within the last twelve months. Almost 70% of respondents were female and in almost 60% of cases the gender of the bully was the same as the gender of the target. As well as completing the survey questions most respondents took the opportunity to write additional comments. The survey data was also supplemented by discussions with focus groups and personal interviews. The research was not focused on the incidence of bullying as the authors accepted the results of a Morgan Poll in 1998 that found an Australian incidence rate of 46%, at the high end of international figures between 1 in 8 and 1 in 2.
In general the findings confirmed international research on bullying. The inclusion of witness responses, however, offer particular interest. It was clear that bullying behaviours had significantly impacted on witnesses as well as targets; indeed, there were no significant differences between the groups. And this impact increased in time for witnesses while it declined for targets. On a scale of 1 to 10 targets rated the effect of the behaviour on them at the time as 8.6; this had decreased to 8.3 on reflection. For witnesses the equivalent figures were 6.7 and 7.1. This should be of real concern to managers. If the impact of bullying is not restricted to the targeted individual, its overall effects could be considerably greater than expected, depending on the number of staff in the work area.
The Nature of Bullying Behaviour
Confirming international results in other English speaking countries, almost three-quarters of the targets were subordinate to the bully – in other words, it was usually their boss. Only 10% reported bullying by subordinates and 15% by peers. The nature of the bullying behaviours they described was largely covert – verbal, indirect, passive, subtle and hard to describe. Very often targets believed they were subject to a 'blame the victim' syndrome, being seen as 'too sensitive' and/or lacking a 'sense of humour'. Particularly significant for these respondents, a largely white collar group, were threats to personal status such as persistent criticism and public humiliation, and destabilising behaviours including shifting the goal posts without consultation and undervaluing of efforts.
When asked what they thought had triggered the behaviour, respondents identified multiple causes although targets and witnesses exhibited significant differences. For example witnesses more commonly saw a disagreement as the trigger while targets more commonly mentioned standing up for a colleague. Perceived discrimination was also seen as a trigger as the following comments suggest: "I felt there was a real fear of me as a middle-aged woman. I think he thought I was his mother …" or "I was targeted because of my sexual preference, which I do not in any way display or discuss in the workplace". Others felt under duress to compromise their principles: "I refused to pass a failing student. I refused to lie".
The Importance of Management Style
The data indicate that bullying is associated with management styles that lack open communication, a willingness to work through conflicts, and an atmosphere of trust. For example, over 70% of respondents agreed that the bully in question seemed to think that an authoritarian style was the best way to get things done with another 15% suggesting an inability to cope. "This person had a strong belief in his own capacity to make good decisions and had a strong preference for working autonomously, without giving or receiving advice or support from others". Similarly, "she had an open and communicative style – as long as you shared her opinions and did not threaten her knowledge base/power".
This section of the survey also drew out a number of comments about poor management and interpersonal skills and the need for management training. "She has no idea about what is appropriate behaviour. She has never been adequately trained or given adequate feedback from her HoD about inappropriate behaviour". There was a concern, too, that authoritarian management styles encouraged others in the work area to behave similarly.
The findings seem to confirm Cary Cooper's view that today's bullies are 'overloaded' and "unable to cope with workload, difficult staff, or their own or others' career-related problems. … They use bullying as a management style reflecting their inability to cope with the demands of their jobs".
Unlike the issue of management style the organisational environment did not seem to be a strong causal factor although cost cutting, workload and job insecurity scored highly as a feature of the workplaces which respondents had experienced. This would lend some support to the 'overloaded' theory. Some respondents identified ethical concerns emerging from such environments. For example one commented "competition for grant money revealed unethical behaviours in management".
Organisational and Individual Impacts
Both witnesses and targets identified the key organisational impacts as decreased morale, increased negativism and cynicism, irritability and people seeking alternative employment. There were comments about the creation of factions and loss of organisational potential as the following comment suggests: "Camps emerged. Sides were taken". Similarly, "… my research and development team was disbanded. … this has ultimately had a huge effect on staffing, morale and cohesiveness."
At an individual level the results were also in line with international evidence. The key psychological impacts were very high stress levels for both targets and witnesses (92% and 65%), insecurity (77% and 44%) and loss of trust (69% and 54%). Physical impacts were also evident with 60% of targets reporting exhaustion and 49% of witnesses with headaches. Some 60% of targets and 46% of witnesses reported lost work time. Together with increased turnover, the need for sometimes complex grievance resolution processes, access to Employee Assistance and, occasionally, litigation, the dollar costs for an organisation can escalate quickly.
Responding to Bullying
The survey also asked respondents about actions they had taken in response to bullying behaviour. Both targets and witnesses had accessed a range of strategies (6.9 and 4.6). Personal networks (family, friends and colleagues) proved most useful while formal mechanisms of redress such as grievance procedures were seen as less helpful. The most effective action, however, was changing jobs.
Targets frequently spoke of self blame. Many indicated they did not realise what was happening until a pattern of behaviour had been established and the downward spiral had become difficult to stop. A cycle of disempowerment evidenced by loss of self esteem, shame, loss of identity and self doubt commences. As their sense of competence diminishes, they have less capacity to deal with the issues.
Worryingly, there was a strong perception that management was reluctant to act when they became aware of bullying behaviour. This was particularly the case where the bully was a senior person in the organisation such as a professor with an international reputation and a number of research grants. At the same time targets were often unwilling to speak out for fear of 'blacklisting'. One academic noted "In this business reputation is all".
There is some good news for organisations. If most bullying arises from social and organisational issues then there are opportunities to address it. A significant first step is for senior management to recognise the issue and to call it by its proper name. A range of suggested strategies include improved information and awareness particularly the development of agreed protocols at the local level, less complicated processes of redress, value-based leadership development programmes, and a clear accountability framework with 360o performance management.
So, what can managers do now?
- Take all complaints seriously.
- Don't punish the messenger.
- Don't make excuses or look the other way.
- Don't transfer the problem.
- BUT remember innocent until proven guilty.
In each of our workplaces we can discuss with staff what they believe to be reasonable expectations and standards for individual behaviour. Developing a set of protocols in this way can bring attention to the problem, create a shared understanding of what is OK and what isn't, and empower individuals to speak out when they believe those protocols have been breached. The following suggestions by Thomas-Peter offer a good starting point for discussion.
- I will not confront my colleagues with information that challenges their actions or participation in projects where they have made significant investments until such time as that issue has been addressed in private with them.
- I will treat my colleagues with the degree of sensitivity, courtesy and respect due from one human being to another, even in the difficult circumstances of disagreement, being criticised or offering criticism and telling or being told bad news.
- I will help my colleagues to recover from error, to change their minds and to acknowledge their limitations without seriously undermining their relationships with individuals and the organisation.
- I will advise my colleagues of dangers and pitfalls that I am aware of and will not allow them to make errors that I can prevent.
- I will not undermine the actions and purpose of my colleagues by instituting policies or practices, alone or with others, without consulting with them, declaring my agenda and disclosing my methods for wider consideration.
- I will encourage my colleagues to question my opinions and decisions without risk to them. In addition I will not obstruct the expression of an opinion or belief merely because it is inconvenient or because I disagree with it.
Remember that every time a bully 'gets away' with the behaviour it is a signal to him or her that the organisation thinks it is acceptable.
The University of Western Australia recognises that bullying does occur from time to time in parts of the institution and is committed to addressing it appropriately when it is reported. The Equal Opportunity Advisory Committee is currently developing a Bullying Action Plan. The Equity and Diversity Office has also negotiated with our Employee Assistance Providers to keep a record of cases that can be defined as bullying so that the University has a benchmark by which to measure improvement. It is also part of the University's Enterprise Agreement with staff to review its grievance procedures in order to simplify them and make them more user-friendly.
Staff members who have been the target of bullying behaviours are encouraged to access the University's Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) either through Davidson Trahaire or the University Counselling Service. Both providers have counsellors who are experienced professionals with specialist expertise and experience. All consultations are confidential. Managers who need advice on dealing with difficult people issues are encouraged to use the Manager Assist facility also provided through the EAP.