On Friday 19 May 2023, New Zealand will become a sea of pink as schools, workplaces and communities join the Pink Shirt Day movement. In honour of this important day, we’re turning a spotlight onto a little discussed issue: workplace bullying. Workplace bullying often occurs in the shadows because those who experience it feel ashamed or unable to speak up without putting their careers at risk. There’s also typically a strong power imbalance, with managers and leaders more likely to be perpetrators. Despite workplace bullying being a little-talked about issue, one in 5 workers in Aotearoa report that they experience bullying at work.
what is workplace bullying?
Employment New Zealand defines workplace bullying as "repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can cause physical or mental harm. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or social. This may include victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person".
Workplace bullying isn’t just about a singular moment. Most bullying involves repeated incidents and targeting of an individual or group. This sustained trauma can have harmful long-term effects. Victims can experience loss of confidence, an inability to concentrate and even physical effects such as insomnia or a loss of appetite. These negative effects can spill over into your overall workplace culture and cause employee morale and productivity to drop, increased absenteeism, higher turnover and poor customer service.
recognising the signs of workplace bullying
Workplace bullying can be insidious and sometimes difficult to recognise. It doesn’t often look like what we imagine when we think about bullying. If you picture children pushing and shoving on a playground when you think about ‘bullying’ you’re not alone. Workplace bullying can manifest quite differently. Here are some signs to look for:
- a persistent pattern of mistreatment
Bullying isn’t just about making explicitly abusive, derogatory or negative comments based on gender, race, or sexuality or other factors. Though that can certainly constitute bullying, it can also take a more subtle form such as belittling a direct report’s work or excluding someone from key projects. Humiliation, accusations, inappropriate jokes, name calling, belittling, unfounded accusations, and overuse of discipline are all classic signs of workplace bullying.
- a culture of fear
Pop culture often makes it seem like having a ‘mean boss’ who inspires terror in their employees is normal and nothing to write home about (think Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada). She regularly belittles and terrifies employees, but it’s deemed ‘acceptable’ because she’s amazing at her job. In reality: her actions are a textbook case of workplace bullying and not acceptable in any way shape or form. The same goes for almost any manager who leads from a place of fear.
- abuse of workplace hierarchies
Often the perpetrator of workplace bullying is in a position of power over the person they’re bullying. Bullies treat those above them in the hierarchy respectfully, but those they deem beneath them with disdain (this is a so-called ‘kiss up, kick down’ hierarchy). This allows them to exploit that the person they’re abusing often has no recourse to stop them. Though hierarchies may breed opportunities for bullying, colleagues of equal standing can also be bullies.
- taking advantage of a workplace setting
Our work-driven culture can lead employees to ignore signs of bullying because they think it’s ‘part of their job’ and they have to make a living. Workplace bullies often take advantage of this, making threats to their victims’ professional status and insinuating that speaking up would hurt their career. They can use tactics like isolation, overwork, impossible or ever changing deadlines, allocation of meaningless tasks, or purposely set colleagues up for failure to make them look incompetent and hurt their professional reputation.
how to create a zero-tolerance culture toward workplace bullying
understand what workplace bullying looks like
Know the signs of workplace bullying, and look out for them, not only for yourself, but for your colleagues as well. Often it's more difficult for someone who is being bullied to speak up and recognise what’s happening, than it is for someone who is outside of the situation. If you witness bullying behaviour, call it out and make it clear that it’s not acceptable. Check in on coworkers who you think may have been bullied and offer your support.
make it easy for people to speak up
If someone speaks up and says they’ve been bullied, often our human instinct is to be distrustful, especially if your experience with the bully has been different. Make an effort to understand and respect people who say they have been bullied and listen to their side of the story. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and say you’ve been bullied. Resist the urge to downplay their experiences as ‘in their head’ and ask them what you can do to support them. Having a dedicated, neutral HR point person who employees can go to with workplace complaints can also help employees feel safe reporting bullying.
address bullying swiftly and decisively
Tackle bullying issues head-on, don’t sweep them under the rug or ask employees to ‘work it out amongst themselves’. Workplace bullying is often written off as part of doing business or ‘being tough’ rather than what it is: abusive. Have clear processes in place for how you handle claims of workplace bullying, that ideally include a neutral third-party. Your processes and disciplinary measures should be clearly communicated to all employees at all levels of your organisation.
prioritise a culture of inclusivity
We hear a lot about the ‘diversity’ part of diversity & inclusion. We all know by now the benefits of having a diverse team with people of different genders, ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds. The inclusion part is less talked about, but just as important. Diversity without inclusion is a half measure. It doesn’t matter if everyone has a seat at the table, if many of them don’t feel safe speaking up and sharing their true selves at work. Making sure your employees feel included and safe speaking up about their needs is key to building a healthy workplace that has zero tolerance for bullying. Some strategies to enhance inclusion in your workplace:
- Form an employee-led diversity committee and create workplace affinity groups. An affinity group is a gathering opportunity for people who share a common identity and their allies. Affinity groups provide opportunities for people to connect with other people who share aspects of their identity, especially in situations in which aspects of their identity are in the minority or are marginalised.
- Encourage story sharing and open conversation. When one person speaks up, it opens the door for others to do the same. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and make your voice heard, especially when tackling a tough subject like bullying. The more we talk about bullying at work, the more it will be normalised to speak up.
- Encourage inclusivity through proactive training and education. Don’t wait for an incident to provide training on topics such as harassment, mental health and diversity and inclusion. Ensure all employees know what is and what isn’t acceptable, and how to report unacceptable behaviour if they experience or witness it.