Every employee has the right to expect to participate in and contribute to a fair workplace. Bullying is unacceptable and has no place there. Bullying and harassment is any repeated, unwanted and unreasonable behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. Bullying should never be taken lightly: it is incredibly serious. The impacts on individuals can be devastating, and in the worst cases can cause loss of self-esteem, depression, or other very serious mental health issues.
In Australia there are national and state-based laws that apply to bullying and harassment. Fair Work includes the following types of behavior in its definition of bullying behaviour:
- Aggression or intimidation
- Teasing, practical jokes or “initiation ceremonies”
- Spreading of malicious rumours
- Pressuring someone to behave inappropriately
- Excluding someone from work or work related social events, or
- Unreasonable work expectations (including offering too little work and work that is below someone’s skill level.)
Bullying behaviour is not always obvious though – it does happen in the workplace without others being aware of it. Nevertheless, your boss or employer has an obligation to protect all employees – including you – from bullying and to address any instances if they occur.
To that end, your employer should already have carried out (or intend to carry out) the following:
- Ensure that all employees know what bullying is and that it is not acceptable. This should be addressed at induction and followed up again in team meetings
- Respond to and resolve any complaints that are made, and take disciplinary action against any person found to be bullying.
If you feel you are being bullied, you have a right to take action.
- Speak up for yourself and directly confront the bully
- Speak to your manager or your manager’s manager, or
- Formally complain to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Deciding which action to take depends on your understanding of how serious the situation is and your level of confidence in the capability and experience of your organisation or your manager to deal with it.
You can also seek legal advice and/or representation. Again, this decision in based on your context, the seriousness of the situation, how confident you are with people to deal with the situation, and the outcome you’re seeking. All of these issues are discussed in the next section.
It’s important to note that bullying is usually played out from a boss to one of their team, or multiple people on their team, (bearing in mind that it does not include dealing with poor performance, or addressing poor behaviour), but you can also find yourself bullied by a peer.
Peer-to-peer bullying is just as serious and can leave you feeling isolated, depressed, and unwell. As an employee, you are entitled to a safe workplace and that means one that is free from bullying.
© 2017 All rights reserved
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In this section we discuss five main questions relating to bullying in the workplace.
- What is bullying?
- Why does it happen?
- What options do you have if you feel you are being bullied?
- What does a good investigation look like?
- What is the impact on you and those closest to you?
What is bullying?
At a fundamental level, there are certain bullying behaviours that are obvious. These include the following types of behaviour included on the Fair Work Commission website:
- Behaving aggressively
- Teasing or practical jokes
- Pressuring someone to behave inappropriately
- Excluding someone from work or work related social events
- Unreasonable work demands, or
- Ignoring you (sometimes known as the “silent treatment”)
The issue with bullying though is that it is rarely obvious, especially when you’re dealing with people who have been using bullying as a tactic for a long time.
What does it look like? Bullying looks like a person gradually using their power over you (or another individual) to make you feel intimidated, humiliated, degraded, or offended. A bully will test their power over you very gradually – a word here or there, a text, a small exclusion from coffee with most of the team, an inside joke that you just don’t get, moving a deadline forward so you feel rushed or feel “behind”, providing feedback that’s not specific but creates doubts, delivering a series of compliments to the rest of the team in your presence.
These little behaviours are shaken off by most people. You might not even notice them. Or you might think you’re imagining it. You try harder, more determined to get on the right side of the bully.
As the behaviours escalate and/or become more prevalent, they start to be more obvious. The “single text” becomes every weekend, or every night, or multiple times over a weekend. The exclusion from coffee becomes exclusion from the team drinks because, “I’m so sorry, but I didn’t see you that day’’. The isolated moving deadline becomes all deadlines moving forward to cater for your perceived poor delivery or less than capable work. The feedback becomes criticism. Work is taken off you and given to others.
The bully “asks around for feedback”, meaning that you see the bully taking every other member of the team into meeting rooms, except you. Lots of doors are closed, and people are told “not to mention it”. The whole team feels you being pushed to the outside. They can start to feel sorry for you or personally guilty because they feel they’re helping it happen.
There are non-specific conversations between the bully and others in public meetings that create doubt about you. “Have you seen such and such with their peers? Do you think they’re a team player?”. Nothing specific, but enough for people to remember there was problem between you and the team.
You might not be given all the information you need to do your work well. Your manager takes your work, and makes it their own.
And, as the behaviour escalates, you start to gradually understand it. You start doubting yourself, and you need someone to talk to about it, but you’re conscious of not wanting to be perceived as weak or negative or unable to work with people.
Then you start trying to defend yourself by writing notes. Keeping a record of what’s happening. It can become whole folders of little incidences. You start responding to emails in an inordinate amount of detail, explaining the situation, for fear that the email could be part of a systemic campaign against you. You start asking team-mates whether there are functions coming up, and trying not to appear paranoid.
And that’s what bullying actually looks like in real life. A subtle build of bad behavior. A subtle decrease in confidence and self-assurance, until you’re left with emotional pain and potential psychological damage.
It’s worth remembering that by the time you’re thinking about making a complaint, it’s usually been happening for a year. And if you feel this way, and you’re dealing with a genuine bully, you almost always won’t be the first or the only person that this has been happening to. You see, it isn’t about you. It’s about the bully.
Why does it happen?
It is often a surprise to know that bullies are rarely the big tough guys. Research tells us that bullies, right from a young age, are people who lack self-confidence and have serious insecurity issues. They may have a delusional view of their own importance, becoming frustrated when people don’t treat them according to this perspective. They then seek to use their control to “bend” people to a way of behaving that affirms their self-belief, or to at least present themselves to those around them as powerful people.
There is a wealth of evidence about children who bully. They are often witnesses or victims of physical or verbal abuse at home, and insensitive to the feelings of others. If the bully reaches adulthood unchecked, they’ve usually become very effective at hiding their behaviour to all but the most experienced eye. (Hence we look at the impact of the behaviour rather than trying to diagnose the bully. i.e., “What is happening to the people around them?”).
In dealing with bullies, it is important to know that they are probably insecure. This means the usual way of dealing with conflict is more difficult.
It’s also important to be clear that there are seldom any common characteristics among people being bullied. Unlike in children, where, although not attributing the cause of the bullying to anyone outside of the bully themselves, we do often look for shyness or difference in the child being bullied. An adult bully will take on all sorts of people. There is rarely a pattern, other than with the bullies themselves. They create an environment around themselves that is unhealthy for most people.
From all this, you should take away one important thing – bullying is not about you, and despite how uncomfortable and painful it can feel, you should not take it personally.
What options do you have if you feel you are being bullied?
If you find yourself in a situation where you believe you’re being bullied, you have a few options to resolve it. They include the following:
Speak up and deal with the situation directly
This approach involves speaking directly to the bully, laying out specific issues and examples. To do this well you need to be prepared and be very detailed in your examples. Not only will a plan relieve some of your own anxiety, but it will also help keep you safe. If you are well prepared, and practiced, you can avoid it being a highly emotional conversation that deteriorates quickly.
You need to calmly and confidently raise the issues in an organised way.
Ask for time to speak – a minimum of 30-45minutes is reasonable in most cases. Explain you’re concerned about some specific things that have happened, and that while perhaps not necessarily intended as bullying, it is making you feel very uncomfortable.
Don’t become their counsellor, or psychotherapist. Just be clear on the behaviour that is causing the issue. Explain that the behaviour is not acceptable. Ask for a commitment to consider the issues raised, and to change some behaviours towards you.
Pros – If effective, this can be very empowering. There are occasions when a person is behaving badly but is not a bully. This conversation should be a wake-up call. On the other hand, many bullies are surprisingly nervous when called on their own behaviour. If you’ve respectfully raised this as a one-on-one conversation, you’ve given them a polite opportunity to understand their impact and make changes before things escalate.
Cons – Sometimes being called on bullying behaviour will leave the person feeling exposed and defensive. They may well retaliate. This is often the case where someone has already had a series of bullying cases claimed or brought against them. You may sense this response in the conversation, in which case note it and speak to a higher level manager immediately. Otherwise it may take some time for the conversation to play out, with lots of heartfelt apologies during the discussion only to find that within a few days or weeks, the bullying is worse than ever.
Separate yourself from the bully
This is not always possible if you’re being bullied by your manager, but may be particularly effective when you’re dealing with a peer. Just put some distance between you and them, or minimise their bullying opportunities. For example, lessen or shut down your connections through social media and have another colleague join you for lunches or coffees, so the conversation cannot deteriorate or get too personal.
Copy people into emails, so deadlines or expectations are clear and changing them is more difficult. If you’re in a particularly bad situation, taking a job away from the bully, joining another team, or even another company, can mean avoiding a particularly damaging workplace.
Pros – If you’re being bullied, removing yourself from the day-to-day situation can be good for your own self confidence. Even resigning may sound drastic, but if a bully has settled into a workplace or company they may have significant organisational power, particularly if they’re a senior leader. There may well be a long history of good people leaving, so it’s not at all flippant to suggest that if you’re able to find another great opportunity it will save you a world of pain.
Cons – This is not always possible. If you’re being bullied by your boss, and it’s a job you love and you don’t want to move, or cannot move at the moment, then staying put is where it’s at. Equally, bullies are not stopped if everyone keeps resigning or walking away from them. Someone has to take a stand.
Speak to your manager, or your manager’s manager
Your manager and company have an obligation to provide you with a safe working place, and that means one that is free from bullying. As such, you have the right to speak up if you’re being bullied. You have a right to be safe and protected from harm at work. In this case, you need to speak to your manager, or your manager’s manager, or the HR person, or other company-nominated person who deals with employee issues, such as HR.
The art of speaking up well is to do so as constructively as possible. “I know this is highly unusual, but I believe I’m being bullied and I’d appreciate your help in getting the behaviour to stop or change”. This approach makes the points clearly, and then allows the conversation to open into a series of questions about what exactly is happening.
Most people mistakenly walk into the conversation and overwhelm the person with details and facts and a long list of issues. Usually the person on the other side of the table isn’t expecting the conversation, so a clear light start – and then a pause – allows them to get ready to listen and ask their own questions. You want to confidently tell your story so it can be addressed, not ramble on in an unstructured never-ending list of issues. If this escalates, there will be time to tell your whole story. The point of this first discussion is to get the issue on the table, and stop the immediate behaviour that is causing the pain.
When you speak-up about bullying, the company is obliged to respond. They may investigate or they may take the examples on notice and speak to the alleged bully and request a change in behaviour. They may also give you some advice on dealing with it.
Pros – Speaking up draws a line in the sand and should stop the behaviour. It makes it clear that the behaviour is unacceptable and that the company is formally reviewing the situation under its obligation to ensure everyone is safe. If there is a capable leader in place, they will be well-equipped to review the issue and resolve it. No good company or good leader will let a bully stay put.
Cons – Sometimes there is a culture of bullying. In these instances, the manager or HR will have been told about bullying before and elected to do nothing, or take no action to effectively stop the bully. In these instances, you may be better off making a formal complaint and bring the matter to a head.
Make a formal complaint to your company
An escalated form of complaint is a formal complaint to the company. This clearly calls the situation as bullying, and the company has an obligation to investigate and rectify the situation.
It is simply a short letter saying that you believe you have been bullied, and that it not acceptable. Adding specific examples in the letter is helpful, as this puts them on record, rather than having them listed during the investigation.
Pros – A formal complaint makes it crystal clear that the workplace is “unsafe” for you. It should stop the behaviour, with the company obligated to make sure you are safe and well, and to get you out of harm’s way. This should stop the person from bullying you further. If there is a capable leader in place they will be well-equipped to review the issue and resolve it. No good company or good leader will let a bully stay put. Most companies see bullies as dangerous not only to employee safety and well-being but also to the success of the business.
Cons – Once again, if the organisation has a history of complaints of bullying they may either be ill-equipped or unprepared to resolve the issue. This will be widely known in the organisation and there will already be examples of people resigning or taking stress leave, or simply leaving unexpectedly over time. Making a formal complaint in this kind of environment is usually unhelpful. It often leads to the person making the complaint being “blocked” from the business and eventually resigning.
Make a formal complaint to Fair Work
You have a right to make a complaint about bullying to Fair Work. This is the right step if the situation is already so bad that you feel making an internal complaint would lead to a more unsafe workplace for you, or where you have tried to resolve the issue and received no support to do so, or where you feel there is a culture of bullying. It can also be the only course of action if you feel the bully in question has strong organisational support regardless of ongoing behaviour.
Pros – This is a legal issue, and is mediated outside your organisation. This means you have a good opportunity to put forward the facts and allow an independent investigator to review them and make a decision. The Fair Work investigators will work through a period of mediation between yourself and the company where the company is entitled to be party to the resolution, and able to make decisions that rectify the bullying.
Cons – Companies will almost always defend legal cases brought against them. In this case, a Fair Work case can be very volatile. While good companies and leaders will step in immediately and seek to understand and resolve any bullying, mediocre or below-par companies will defend regardless of the findings of investigation. This can, and has, put the issue or case on the front page of the news.
This bad press makes bad companies even more defensive. This will mean that whoever made the complaint will be both pressured and stressed by the media attention, and may have their own reputation damaged in the process. Whatever anyone says, being in the public eye for bullying can be both immediately painful, and also have a negative impact on employment longer term.
What does a good investigation look like?
There are vast differences between a high quality investigation of bullying and a poor quality one. It almost always comes down to the expertise and experience of the person carrying out the investigation.
These are the signs of a good quality investigation:
- Is open minded, listening intently, and keeping track of details
- Takes an immediate and urgent regard for the safety and well-being of all people involved
- Stays committed to fair process and to ensuring the right outcome, as opposed to sympathising and supporting whoever is speaking to them. (the investigator can appear “unmoved” by the emotion, but this is much preferred over someone who is emotionally invested in taking sides).
- Looks for broader data points than just one person’s views versus another. They will seek data on sick leave, stress leave, resignations, other previous complaints, and previous reference points.
- Investigates quietly, calmly and confidentially, asking questions, but not creating any drama, recognising that the situation is already inflamed enough
- Gives you clear commitments on timelines and always follows up as promised
- Understands the urgency and doesn’t let the issue drag on, and
- Understands bullying and employee relationships, both from experience and from a desire to create and sustain a healthy and well workplace.
Conversely, these are the signs of a bad investigation:
- Gets emotionally involved very early, declaring who’s right before they’ve looked at the whole context and situation
- Conducts a “person a versus person b” investigation, rather than understanding bullying, its context, causes, and likely cultural impact
- Interviews people in a “cloak and dagger” way, asking individuals into a room, visible to everyone, and then telling them not to talk about the situation
- Retrospectively implements policies or letters than were not in place prior to any complaint or investigation. Solutions should always be in place “from the day they occurred”, not professing to be in place earlier, and/or
- Where the bully has significant organisational power over the investigator.
If there are a few signs of a bad investigation, it might be best to consider an external complaint and review by an independent party.
What is the impact on you and those closest to you?
By far the most important thing you need to understand about bullying is its impact on you and those closest to you.
Bullying takes a slow build towards its real impact and these impacts are very serious. On the individual, there is an initial drop in self-confidence as they start to doubt themselves and try harder to make things right or win the bully over. As they progressively lose more confidence they doubt themselves further and feel pretty worthless. They can feel their job or career is at risk. They could feel pathetic and weak and unable to get a grip on their work life.
This gradual build can also lead to annoyance, anger, frustration, and a feeling of lack of control over their work life. It can lead to leaning on other supports to deal with the situation, like over-eating, alcohol or other drugs. Ultimately, this gradual build can lead to sadness, depression, sleeplessness or even suicide.
This increasingly devastating impact on the individual is watched and rarely completely understood by those closest to them at home. They appear moody, exhausted and unable to get things together. It can lead to the breakdown of relationships and friendships. The person may complain and explain the situation so much at home that those closest get tired of the perceived victim mentality, without appreciating the full situation at work.
All in all, bullying is a very serious mental health issue.
If you have been bullied, or are being bullied, you should not only seek resolution, but equally consider counselling or other support to assist with the situation. If you are family or a friend of a person being bullied, be gentle and careful, and also try to get them some appropriate support.
Simply don’t underestimate the damage bullying can do to you, to your work, or to your relationships with family and friends.
© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human
Unfortunately, becoming an expert in how to deal with bullying comes from experience. The more cases you’ve seen, the more you know what to look for. If being an expert means you’ve had to watch a close friend, family member or colleague being bullied then that’s the last thing you want to be. The less bullying you see at work, the better.
While most bullying behaviour is displayed by the person with organisational power, i.e. the boss, towards those they control, it can also originate from within teams: peers can bully peers. All the same behaviours and rules described above are equally applicable to the peer bully. Perhaps they create a small posse, or clique around them to strengthen their power, but the behaviours are common, and the requirement to deal with it, deserves equal weight.
Legally, there’s a wealth of material on-line, much of it provided by Fair Work and Safe Work Australia. Some of the most useful include:
- Safe Work Australia
Specifically for workers –
Specifically for bosses –
- Fair Work
- Human Rights Commission
The Human Rights information is a particularly good summary if you feel you are being bullied on the grounds of discrimination (e.g. gender, sexual orientation, age, race, religion, or disability).
- Psychologically, there’s also a host of information. Here are some articles we found particularly useful.
Forbes – how to stop workplace bullying (Note that this article also talks about things you can do to short-circuit bullying.)
Then there is the idea that there are specific actions an individual takes to encourage bullying that we find somewhat dubious. But it’s worth reading about how a culture can help bullies thrive and there are also some good real life examples of bullying in this article.
- Legally, good advice is available from most legal firms. We don’t endorse any particular legal firm and recommend you reference check any company before engaging them.
We also strongly suggest you read the Leader’s information on bullying. Having an appreciation of both sides of the issue means you can offer support in getting to the speediest and best possible resolution.
© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human