How to Stop Workplace Bullying in its Tracks
How to Stop Workplace Bullying in its Tracks

Workplace bullying is an enormous problem, which can be very difficult to manage effectively. Not only does the victim experience high levels of stress, but bullying can cause a loss of productivity, and prevent staff from being able to work together. It can also result in more management time being spent dealing with bullying issues, increased costs due to investigations, and higher rates of sick leave, workers’ compensation claims and unfair dismissal claims.

How much of a problem is bullying?

The Commonwealth Government’s Guide to Bullying in the Workplace has estimated that 20 per cent of all workers’ compensation claims for psychological injury are the result of workplace bullying. Further, psychological injury claims are the most expensive type of claims. According to the guide, workplace bulling is the “repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a person or group of persons at a workplace, which creates a risk to health and safety.” Single incidents of unreasonable behaviour are not considered bullying, although they can be a warning sign that the behaviour may escalate and lead to bullying.

The importance of workplace culture

Bullying usually comes into focus only after there has been a complaint. Steps are taken to investigate the complaint, and measures are put in place to resolve the issues. While it is important that incidents of bullying are investigated and appropriate action is taken, it’s much more effective to tackle the problem of bullying by trying to prevent it from happening in the first place.

In workplaces where employees work well together, are treated respectfully and have open channels of communication, a bully will be less effective. In contrast, in a culture where workers feel suspicious and fearful, the conditions for workplace bullying are ideal. Often, it may be a manager doing the bullying through an “iron fist” approach, strictly controlling work and demeaning the victim. If this style of management has been accepted by the organisation, then the organisation has (perhaps unwittingly) accepted a culture of bullying.

Effective bullying investigations

Because of the many legal requirements of a formal investigation, they tend to be formal processes and can even become adversarial if the complainant and the alleged bully have to sit down together in an attempt to resolve the matter. But if organisations are able to handle the matter a little more creatively, informal processes can be adopted. For example, an independent person may speak to both parties separately, giving both sides the opportunity to freely express their views. A code of conduct may be drafted, setting out acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, and both parties can agree to be bound by that code. Informal processes can often bring a speedy halt to bullying issues.

Other strategies to help prevent bullying

It is important that the organisation has an anti-bullying policy, which must be read and signed by every employee to indicate understanding and agreement to its terms.

This is a foundation document which must:

  • Set out the definition of bullying.
  • Give examples of bullying behaviours.
  • Set out a grievance procedure.
  • Indicate that disciplinary action that can be taken against a perpetrator. 

This document will also become very important in the event of any grievance procedure or litigation arising out of a complaint of bullying.

One of the most effective preventative measures is to promote a happy, healthy workplace in which employees are valued and respected. Managers should be regularly reminded that they are role models. Regular training of all employees on bullying issues also reminds everyone about what behaviour is acceptable, and sends a strong message that bullying will not be tolerated by the organisation.

Preventative measures will never fully protect organisations and staff from bullying, but they can certainly help to reduce incidents of bullying, and show that the organisation is serious about stamping out bullying.

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