Regulation changes have pushed workplace bullying underground. But rather than disappear, the issue continues to fester.
Despite increasing measures to combat workplace bullying, the behaviour remain entrenched in organisations. Changes to the law aimed at stamping out the practice have instead transformed bullying into an underground, subversive set of behaviours that often remain unaddressed.
Unfortunately, anti-bullying policies can actually work to support perpetrators. Rules that explicitly define workplace bullying create exemptions – or even permissions – for behaviours that do not meet the formal standard. Although some perpetrators are no longer bullying in the narrow sense outlined by policies, their acts of shunning, scapegoating and ostracism have the same effect.
These insidious behaviours can go undetected for long periods because they are more difficult to notice or prove. As researchers Kipling Williams and Steve Nida have argued: “Being excluded or ostracised is an invisible form of bullying that doesn’t leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact.”
The bruises, cuts and blows are less evident, but the internal bleeding is real. “Ostracism or exclusion might not leave external scars, but it can cause pain that often is deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury,” says Williams.
This is a costly issue in which no one wins. Individuals can suffer symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Organisations in which harassment occurs must endure lost time, absences, workers compensation claims, employee turnover, lack of productivity and the risk of costly and lengthy law suits, as well as reputational damage.
High on hostility
So, why does it continue?
First, bullies tend to be very good at office politics, working upwards and attacking those they consider rivals through innuendo and social networks. Bullies are often socially savvy, even charming. Because of this, they are able to abuse co-workers while receiving positive work evaluations from managers.
Secondly, workplace bullying policies aren’t the panacea they are sometimes painted to be. If they exist at all, they are often ignored or ineffective. A report by corporate training company VitalSmarts showed only 7 per cent of workers know someone who used an anti-bullying policy in their defence – for the majority, it didn’t work. Plus, we now know some bullies use policy to craft new and seemingly illicit means of enacting their power.
Thirdly, workplace bullying cases often go unreported, undetected and unchallenged. This inaction rewards perpetrators and empowers them to continue behaving in the same way. This is confusing for the victim, who is stressed, unsure and can feel isolated in the workplace, undermining the confidence necessary to report the issue. Because of this, many opt to take the less confrontational path, hoping it will go away in time. It usually doesn’t.
Solutions to workplace bullying
Challenging workplace bullying takes vigilance, awareness and courage. So what can you do if colleagues are being shunned and ostracised by peers or managers?
The first step is not to participate. But it’s not enough to abstain from being a bully – the onus is on you to take positive steps against harassment where you witness it. As Australian of the Year David Morrison famously said, “The standard you walk by is the standard you accept.”
When you do nothing, you allow psychological attacks to continue. Silent witnesses bear partial responsibility for the consequences of bullying, and unless the toxic culture that facilitates bullying is undone, logic says you could be next.
Leaders need to express public and ongoing support for clearly-worded policies. In doing so, policies begin to shape and inform the culture of an organisation. It is critical managers understand bullying’s implications for culture, employee wellbeing and their own personal liability.
When regulation fails – a dilemma seen more frequently – we need to depend on individual moral character. Herein lies the ethical challenge. ‘Character’ is an under-appreciated ethical trait in executive education programs, but the moral virtues that form a person’s character are the foundation of ethical leadership.