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  • 14 June 2024
  • 1 month

Addressing Bullying in the Workplace

Emily Fournier

Marketing and Communications Manager

In work, as in school, as in families, as in life, we are inevitably going to encounter people inclined to treat us poorly. It’s just the way it is. That’s not to say that we should embrace a fatalist perspective toward bullying, however; only an understanding that it is absolutely, 100 percent happening around us at any point in time, whether that’s in the workplace, in school, in a community group, or within our social or family networks.

Why is that? While experts proport a myriad of explanations for why bullies act the way they do—or why people act like bullies, I should say—at the root of these excuses is ultimately one common denominator: fear. Fear that the roles could be reversed: that they could be the one bullied, or the one perceived as “inferior.” Fear of perceived differences: flagging an unfamiliar characteristic as a threat and defending against it accordingly. Fear that a person may subvert their control over their environment or a particular situation (or what they perceive as control, at least). Fear that they’re already powerless and need something or someone to seize control of. And fear that they’re already worthless, incapable, or inferior to others.

Following this understanding, it makes sense—or, at least, it’s not surprising—that marginalized groups so often experience bullying, especially in comparison to dominant groups. Take the corporate workplace, for example—or any blue-collar industry today: For years, the corporate workplace was for men only. Women’s role was in the home. LGBTQIA+ peoples weren’t accepted, and as such, were either excluded from corporate spaces if they lived authentically, or had to assume a straight male persona in order to be allowed in.

Now, disregarding the biases and prejudice that created this situation in the first place—which themselves derived from fear—we can understand some of the bullying and discrimination that women and LGBTQIA+ people face in the workplace today as a fear of change from straight male cohort: fear that they will be usurped or replaced; that they will lose their power or control; or perhaps something else: perhaps that their ‘strength’ and ‘virility’ will be unmasked for the facade it’s always been…but that’s another matter.

Needless to say, while this understanding can help us make some sort of sense of why people might bully, it in no way excuses the behavior, let’s be absolutely clear on that. The fear that people feel when they come into contact with someone new or different from them is both unfounded and unacceptable. Instead, categorizing bullying as a fear response is necessary only in that it enables the development of effective strategies for preventing it.

So what are those strategies?

Staff Training

As one might expect, one of the most basic and most important strategies for preventing bullying is training. “DEI training,” “anti-bias training,” “anti-stigma training,” “anti-harassment training”—whatever you want to call it, training centered around inclusivity, respect, empathy, and understanding in the workplace is paramount to building a culture of care and consideration, and a workplace free of bullying.

By teaching employees about the importance of respect and inclusivity—even if that includes going over what’s in it for themselves if that’s what it takes to communicate how wholly pointless and damaging bullying is—employers can not only aspire to create a more benevolent workplace in which peers are empowered to more carefully consider how their words or actions might impact their colleagues, but also to develop a network of active bystanders willing to intervene when they witness harmful or abusive behaviors at work.

This is especially important for an effective preventive or reduction strategy, as findings from a 2022 UNI Global Union survey reveal that of the whopping 84 percent of workers across Latin America who have witnessed some form of mistreatment in the workplace, up to 70 percent are admittedly unwilling to speak up due to fear of negative consequences, uncertainty about company protocols or where they can raise their concerns, and doubt that anything will come of their actions.

By taking a holistic approach to training, employers can aim to tackle bullying from all sides: raising staff’s awareness of different identities and backgrounds to reduce stigma and unconscious bias; promoting the personal and communal benefits of kindness, consideration, sensitivity, inclusivity, and respect to positively influence workplace behaviors; and instructing staff on how they can intervene if they witness adverse or intolerant behaviors to establish a well-kept and well-monitored culture of safety at work.

Leadership Training

And while employing general staff to promote a network of active bystanders can be an effective preventive strategy, the most impactful bystanders and agents of deterrence ultimately come from the top. It is the leaders who call the shots in an organization, and as such, it is they who decide what actions are taken against workplace bullies. Therefore, it is leaders who must demonstrate a sound awareness and steadfast commitment to protecting their workers against bullying and harassment, and it is they who must model the behaviors expected of others inside the workplace.

When management and leadership are involved in an organization’s anti-bullying strategy, employees know better than to test their luck. Furthermore, they are more likely to be aware of their organization’s anti-bullying efforts, for that matter, and are more likely to feel empowered to participate themselves. That said, equally important to general staff training is leadership and management training that covers how the heads or “faces” of an organization can promptly identify and appropriately intervene in situations of bullying; how they can dissuade staff from resorting to abusive or discriminatory behaviors in the first place; and how they can lead with compassion, empathy, kindness, and understanding.

Wellbeing Ambassadors

Similar to the promotion of active bystanders, wellbeing ambassador programs offer yet another avenue for cultivating a psychologically safe workplace by leveraging peers as accessible and comfortable points of contact to valuable support for employees seeking care for their health and wellbeing. Touting peers that know where someone can go to get help for their mental health after they’ve been victimized, and where they can go to raise concerns and seek help for their safety at work; allowing employees to feel like they can be open and unashamed or unafraid to talk about their experiences in the presence of their peers—all that is integral to addressing bullying and its impacts at work.

Consulting

Lastly, at the heart of an effective anti-bullying strategy—or any strategy, for that matter—are individualized solutions tailored to match the unique needs of one’s specific workforce and environment. A global organization with all remote worksites, for instance, is going to need a different approach to bullying than, say, a regional, in-person site. If the bullying is taking place online, solutions are going to have to include effective online monitoring of corporate channels (e.g., Slack, Teams, etc.) and even social media; whereas if the bullying is taking place in the office or within a physical worksite, training bystanders to physically and/or vocally intervene would be an example of an appropriate response for that situation.

That said, in order to develop and effectively implement those customized solutions requires that employers partner with consultants who can speak to any legal and ethical requirements that an organization must comply with; whose expertise enables them to readily speak to the hazards or work factors like impeding upon employees’ wellbeing (and conversely, which factors can enhance it); and whose knowledge, insights, and industry experience can be used to deliver comprehensive strategies and lasting results.

By collaborating with consultants on tailored strategies, organizations—especially those with global operations—can receive much-needed guidance on how to adhere to evolving legislation concerning employers’ duty of care. They can also receive valuable and insightful recommendations on how to enhance their commitment to employee wellbeing, and how to monitor and track their progress over time.

As organizations inevitably mix together different personalities, workstyles, values, identities, and so on, the likelihood that employees will not always get along—that some will bicker, or bully—is always there. But how high or low that likelihood is, is ultimately determined by how tolerant or intolerant employers prove themselves to be toward abusive behaviors at work. That said, for organizations committed to maintaining a psychologically safe work environment for their staff, taking a staunch stance against workplace bullying is imperative, if only in the very least to prove that they truly care.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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