Workplace bullying is widespread, that is very clear from research, reading and conversations I have had over the past few years.
I have also received mails and responses to articles, which indicate bullying in the workplace is ongoing. While there are many, many definitions, case studies and examples, Tim Field’s (footnote) is a very clear one.
Being bullied is not about one isolated incident, it is about consistent negative behaviour that damages self-image to a point where the bullied leaves, and the bully remains, sometimes with greater status.
South African business writer, Ian Mann, in his book “Managing with Intent” covers self-image and how to manage people more effectively by taking their self-image into account. In a bullying situation, the opposite is often true.
If you have seen the Meryl Streep/Anne Hathaway movie “The Devil wears Prada” or the TV show “Ugly Betty”, you will have seen workplace bullying entrenched into the business model. Funny, but very frightening. In both of these, the bullied person rises to the top, and the soft underbelly of the bullies is shown, but in real life that doesn’t always happen.
Reading and personal experience indicate to me that there are many different types of bullying, but they can be broken down into five main categories:
3. Damage to personal brand image
4. Damage to professional brand image
5. Damage to self-image
It is possible to create a situation in the workplace where an employee literally feels they have no one to talk to, and nobody will assist them. Exclusion covers not sharing information, ignoring or excluding somebody from meetings, not telling them about potential opportunities or risks, not including them in briefings or emails and socially excluding them. For example, not inviting them to lunch or to social occasions.
When I started at a company some years ago as the Sales Director, I couldn’t understand why there was no history of information, no files, etc. I was told everything must have been stored as soft copies, but it was nowhere to be found. There was a cupboard in my office with a few brochures and that was it. After three months, I happened to be looking for a pen, went into the sales office, and opened one of the cupboards.
All the history, including newsletters and marketing collateral was there! Fortunately, by that time, I had built up some strong relationships with colleagues, as well as being in the more senior position, so felt able to handle a very negative situation.
The denial was absolute, comments like “we thought you knew it was here” and “we didn’t know you needed this” came forth, and might have been believed if I hadn’t found out who had instructed the move into the sales office from the sales manager’s office, the day before I started work, and if I hadn’t asked where the historical information was.
Social exclusion at work
There are also social events that naturally exclude colleagues. As a woman, it is easy to feel excluded when all the guys go off to play golf, or for drinks after work, and don’t include their female colleagues in the invitation. Of course, it helps if you do play golf! but most of us will have a drink.
While exclusion can be deliberate, it may also be unintentional, and it is important to try and figure out which it is. A simple question might resolve the unintentional exclusion. Deliberate exclusion is much harder to manage, typically because it is so easy to make the excluded person look and feel paranoid. The excluded person also can be seen as a whiner and complainer which makes them seem dis-empowered. And that can slow down the promotion track, too.
It is also important to note that being excluded might be situation related, and for it to be considered bullying, it needs to be happening consistently and with deliberate malice. It is also important to be aware that there are those that simply are not interested in anybody other than themselves and their own career path, and, in their single-minded approach, they exclude anybody that is either competition or not able to assist them to get to where they want to go.
How to handle being excluded
Management needs to be made aware if there is systemic bullying happening, but anecdotal evidence indicates that people who are being bullied are unable to effectively communicate the problems, and are left feeling petty and generally in a worse position after raising their concerns.
An HR department that is seen as objective is able to make a difference by implementing programs that address bullying at source, rather than after the fact. This is not always available in smaller companies, and one solution is to document incidents both in writing and on camera (if possible and legal). Documented evidence with dates, times and exactly what was said should help to focus the right kind of attention and is much more effective than a verbal complaint.
Exclusion is one of the more difficult types of bullying to address because it is not easy to prove. However, if you know who the source is, let them know you are aware of what they are doing. If you have been excluded from a meeting or social arrangement that you should have been part of, query the organiser, and find out why your name was not on the list. A quiet, but firm, approach without involving anybody but the two of you, might work, but it must be in writing. If not, the next step should be formal process.
Definition of workplace bullying by Tim Field:
“Bullying is a compulsive need to displace aggression and is achieved by the expression of inadequacy (social, personal, interpersonal, behavioural, professional) by projection of that inadequacy onto others through control and subjugation (criticism, exclusion, isolation etc). Bullying is sustained by abdication of responsibility (denial, counter-accusation, pretence of victimhood) and perpetuated by a climate of fear, ignorance, indifference, silence, denial, disbelief, deception, evasion of accountability, tolerance and reward (eg. promotion) for the bully.”
Teryl Schroenn is the CEO at Accsys (Pty) Ltd.