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Bullying in the workplace – What is it? How do you prevent it?

Workplace bullying has become a hot topic in recent years – a few public and high-profile cases coupled with some incredibly expensive settlements have highlighted how serious the issue can be for businesses.

Such cases have demonstrated that preventing workplace bullying is an obligation and not just a token obligation under law, but one that will be enforced with the business needing to bear the cost of compensation, not necessarily the bully.

Workplace bulling has such a high profile the topic is featured at all levels of government, in legislation and by numerous regulatory bodies including the Human Rights Council and Fair Work Commission. There are literally hundreds of websites dedicated to this specific topic, with numerous law firms specialising in securing compensation for victims.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying can be verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by fellow employees, a superior, the business owner or manager or another person or group at work.

Much like sexual harassment (a form of bullying in itself), the offending behaviour need not be deliberate. The victim’s reasonable perception is what matters.

Bullying in the workplace can be direct or indirect. According to the Human Rights Commission, all of the following are examples of workplace bullying:

  • Repeated hurtful remarks or attacks, or making fun of an individual’s work or them as a person (including family, sex, sexuality, gender identity, race or culture, education or economic background).
  • Sexual harassment, particularly unwelcome touching and sexually explicit comments and requests that make a person uncomfortable.
  • Excluding or stopping a person from working with people or taking part in activities that relate to their work.
  • Playing mind games, ganging up, or other types of psychological harassment.
  • Intimidation (making a person feel less important and undervalued). 
  • Giving a person pointless tasks that have nothing to do with their job. 
  • Giving a person impossible jobs that cannot be done in the given time or with the resources provided. 
  • Deliberately changing a person’s work hours or schedule to make it difficult for them.
  • Deliberately holding back information a person needs to do their job properly.
  • Pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing, or any unwanted physical contact with a person in the workplace
  • Attacking or threatening with equipment, knives, guns, clubs or any other type of object that can be turned into a weapon. 
  • Initiation or hazing - where a person is made to do humiliating or inappropriate things in order to be accepted as part of the team.

It is important to consider direct and indirect as well as physical and non-physical bulling, as they are all able to land both an employee and the business in significant trouble – financially and with the authorities.

Even without a complaint being lodged, a single workplace bully can undermine an entire workforce’s morale and cause a high staff turnover and significantly reduced productivity.

How do you ensure your business is not affected by workplace bullying?

  • Have a clear policy in place regarding workplace bullying.
  • That policy should include steps a victim should take – speaking up, who to take complaints to and the processes involved when there is a complaint.
  • You could go a step further and include a section for the bully – if they identify their behaviour could be taken as bullying, who do they speak to? What corrective help is available to them before or after a complaint is raised?
  • Education – refresh your team’s understanding of workplace bullying, what it is and what they can do to help themselves and others.
  • Ensure staff know they can speak to either a delegate or superior in complete confidence about bullying.
  • Pay close attention to staff morale – if changes are noticed, investigate immediately and stamp out issues before formal complaints need to be made.

Early intervention can do more than prevent the need for formal action.

Identifying bullying behaviour, coupled with appropriate counseling and training, can salvage an otherwise productive staff member who was not aware their behaviour could have such a negative impact.

A specialist HR firm, such as JP Smith can conduct an audit of existing policy and procedure and assess the workplace to identify any subtle bullying that may be developing.

JP Smith has a fully-trained and qualified workplace psychologist on staff who can assist with counseling of affected staff including victims, bystanders and the bullies themselves.

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