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Bullying in the Workplace

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Things Have Changed Since the Playground

Fiona Campbell* used to love her job. For two years she went to work with a spring in her step. Then things with her boss started to change. At first she found his demeaning behaviour merely irritating but it quickly turned critical. He was slowly chiselling away at her. Campbell didn’t know what to make of the situation and for the first time she dreaded going to work. When she found herself awake in the middle of the night with a racing heart, she knew she had to figure out what was going on. She went to see her doctor who immediately diagnosed her as having a physiological stress reaction to workplace bullying. Until that moment, Campbell had never considered that she was a victim of workplace bullying. In hindsight, she admits she should have seen the signs – the other four positions at work had been filled by eight employees in the past 18 months. And six of the eight staff members who left cited the boss as a major reason for leaving. Campbell’s doctor immediately put her on a one-month medical leave and extended it another month when the anxiety wasn’t eased despite sessions with a workplace bullying therapist. Campbell sought help from the organization’s human resources department but discovered they had no workplace bullying policies in place. Not only that, HR had no clue what to do and lacked the assertiveness to follow up on Campbell’s concerns. After two months with no progress, Campbell left her job and opened up her own business. Workplace bullying can be difficult to define. It typically involves making verbal comments or negative physical gestures that could isolate or hurt someone in the work place. While it often starts with nearly unnoticeable actions, it escalates to a pattern of behaviour that is meant to humiliate, degrade, or intimidate a person. The majority of bullies are bosses but that is not always the case. Parents can target teachers, colleagues bully colleagues, subordinates target bosses, and clients can bully workers, among countless other scenarios. The challenging thing for many people is figuring out that what they are going through is workplace bullying. It’s not always easy to ‘diagnose’. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers some thoughts on this, “While bullying is a form of aggression, the actions can be both obvious and subtle. It is important to note that the following is not a checklist, nor does it mention all forms of bullying. This list is a way of showing some of the ways bullying may happen in a workplace. Also remember that bullying is usually considered to be a pattern of behaviour where one or more incidents will help show that bullying is taking place. Examples include:

  • spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo that is not true

  • excluding or isolating someone socially

  • intimidating a person

  • undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work

  • physically abusing or threatening abuse

  • removing areas of responsibilities without cause

  • constantly changing work guidelines

  • establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail

  • withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information

  • making jokes that are 'obviously offensive' by spoken word or e-mail

  • intruding on a person's privacy by pestering, spying, or stalking

  • assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavourable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)

  • underwork - creating a feeling of uselessness

  • yelling or using profanity

  • criticising a person persistently or constantly

  • belittling a person's opinions

  • unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment

  • blocking applications for training, leave, or promotion

  • tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment

CCOHS continues, “It is sometimes hard to know if bullying is happening at the workplace. Many studies acknowledge that there is a "fine line" between strong management and bullying. Comments that are objective and are intended to provide constructive feedback are not usually considered bullying, but rather are intended to assist the employee with their work. If you are not sure an action or statement could be considered bullying, you can use the "reasonable person" test. Would most people consider the action unacceptable?” Workplace bullying tends to happen in three steps. First is isolation where the target is isolated from colleagues through criticism and intimidation. Next is control where the target is treated different than others and is belittled and humiliated. Last is elimination where the target is often brought up on disciplinary charges, finds themselves misrepresented, and is often coerced into leaving or is dismissed due to false allegations. The target is to blame for none of this. By taking these steps, bullies are able to keep the workplace to their liking and keep supporters close to them. Unlike other forms of bullying that are kept in the forefront of the news, workplace bullying remains surrounded by a shroud of mystery. The Integrity Group based in Vancouver specializes in the prevention of harassment and discrimination in the workplace and offers workplace bullying workshops. They explain, “Despite its prevalence in the workplace, the concept of bullying is poorly understood by most employers, and if understood, is rarely addressed in the appropriate fashion. For example, contrary to popular perception, bullying is not the exclusive function of managers or supervisors when dealing with subordinates. Bullies don’t always target employees regarded as “weak” or docile—they will more often target a colleague who is strong, capable, or thought to be a “rising star”—in order to undermine the target employee’s profile in the organization.” People who are victims of workplace bullying (also called targets) can experience a huge range of side effects. They include but are not limited to:

  • feelings of isolation

  • feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, frustration, and uncharacteristic irritability

  • loss of self-confidence

  • loss of concentration

  • after-effects such as post-traumatic stress disorder

  • decreased productivity at work

  • inability to sleep

  • waking up exhausted

  • compromised immune system leading to more illnesses

  • headaches

  • aches and pains

  • skin problems like eczema and shingles

  • irritable bowel syndrome

  • being constantly on edge

  • anxiety when thinking about work

  • increased tension in relationships, even when not at work

A 2007 survey of bullying targets by the Workplace Bullying Institute in the United States found that 45% of the respondents experienced stress-related health problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, or depression. In 2006, Nancy Sulz was awarded $950,000 in damages, lost wages, and loss of future earnings after being bullied at work for over a decade. Sulz had worked for the RCMP and filed 48 complaints against her commanding officer before a formal investigation was conducted. B.C. Supreme Court Justice George Lamperson found that the C.O. and two subordinate officers caused Sulz “serious psychological harm” hence the nearly $1 million award. What should you do if you are a workplace bully victim? You need to immediately start keeping a journal that details the bullying. Jot down the date, time, and what occurred. Record the names of any witnesses. If any bullying takes place via e-mail, fax, memo, letter, or other documents, keep copies. Keeping silent is the worst thing to do. If inappropriate comments about your life are made in the break room, stating “That’s inappropriate” may nip it in the bud. If a co-worker mocks the way you did a presentation, telling the person not to speak to you in that manner may be enough. If not, you may need to go to a higher-up. The next step is to report the bullying to your manager or supervisor. If that doesn’t help, take your concern to the next level of management. It may be tempting to lash out against the bully but avoid doing this; it may help the bully turn the tables on you so you look like the bad guy. During all of this, keep your health a top priority. Do everything you can to keep your stress level low and try not to get overwhelmed by the bullying problem. Doing so can lead to more physical and mental health problems including things such as depression. Valerie Cade, a workplace bullying expert, award winning speaker, and author of the Canadian best seller, Bully Free at Work, shares her thoughts on how to deal with a bully, “Learn to respond to workplace bullies in three parts. Part one: expect an attack. Part two: know some ready-made responses. Part three: practice your responses ahead of time before the pressure is on. Part One: Expect an Attack Workplace bullies are good at manipulating a relationship. They can be charming for a while—then strike when you let your guard down. Recognize the bully for who she is. Expect the bully to attack and ABR (Always Be Ready). Remember, the bully only has her own interests at heart. She’s not interested in a relationship of equals. She wants power. When you accept a rationalization for her behaviour or get emotional and argue with her, she has won. Instead of excusing her behaviour or allowing her to engage you, proceed to part two. Part Two: Know Some Bully-Proof Responses Train yourself to listen critically to a bully. When you hear the words of her attack—usually couched as criticism, blame, or self-justification—fall back on your response. Very simply, excuse yourself with one of the following bully-proof responses and walk away.

  • Excuse me, I have a meeting to go to.

  • I have something I have to attend to. I’ll get back with you later.

  • Pardon me, I was just heading out. Can we talk tomorrow?

  • Let’s talk later (this afternoon). I have something that can’t wait.

  • (non-defensively) Do you think so? Maybe you’re right.

  • I don’t agree, but I’m sure we can talk about this another time.

Part Three: Practice Your Responses Left up to chance, it’s likely that you’ll fall into the bully’s trap. That is, you’ll take the bully on before you’re ready because it’s natural to respond to a comment or question with an answer. Athletes know that the key to being ready is practice, practice, practice. You can also adopt that strategy when dealing with a bully. Here’s how:

  • Decide on your bully-proof responses, the ones you’ll find easiest to say. Choose ones from the list above or invent your own.

  • Imagine a situation in which the bully attacks. Say your response out loud. Repeat with another situation. Again, say your response out loud.

  • Write out the response five times. The next day, write it out ten times.

  • Practice every day at the same time.

Your goal is to make the response automatic, something you don’t have to think about. This is one time that thinking will get you in trouble. Instead, you want to respond before you think. After you have had a chance to cool off, you can approach the bully. You are calm and can deal with the bully’s complaint. Now you have the upper hand.” Fiona Campbell took Cade's bully-free eCourse on her website ( <> ) and highly recommends it. The Kavanagh Decision in 2003 (The Newfoundland Association of Public and Private Employees versus Newfoundland) brought this issue to the attention of Canadians in a big way. The Province of Newfoundland was ordered to pay $875,000 in damages to a government worker who had been terminated after a campaign of harassment by his co-workers. Since that ruling, numerous Canadian organizations have held anti-bullying presentations and seminars to get the message across that workplace bullying can be devastating and is unacceptable. There isn’t much occupational health and safety legislation that deals with workplace bullying. Some jurisdictions have legislation that deals with psychological harassment at work or workplace violence but it isn’t specific in most cases. Very few employers have anti-bullying policies. Regardless, behaviour that is offensive or harmful should not be tolerated. Check with your employer or labour organization for details on legislation in your area. As of print time, only three provinces (Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan) have zero-tolerance policies and legislation which prohibit workplace bullying. What about legal avenues? If you are bullied at work, what legal avenues can you pursue? Dr. Lisa M. S. Barrow, a Healthy Workplace Consultant with LMSB Consulting in Ontario and the author of In Darkness Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying and Hope for a Healthy Workplace clarifies this issue, “Research conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute revealed that 44% of bullied employees lost their jobs as a result of workplace bullying while only 1.4% of bullies lost their jobs. As a result of severing their relationship with their employer, bullied employees may decide to sue on the grounds of constructive dismissal or wrongful dismissal. The bullying experiences may have made the employee’s continued employment with the organization intolerable, thus leading to a constructive dismissal. If the bullied employees were terminated due to a perception of incompetence stemming from unwarranted performance appraisals or actions of the workplace bully, then they could sue on the grounds of wrongful dismissal. Finally, bullied employees may choose to sue their current and former employer for breach of employment contract due to a failure to create a respectful and harassment-free workplace environment.” Preventing workplace bullying before it begins is key. Through awareness and education, prevention is a possibility. With knowledge, chances increase that the bully becomes aware of what his or her actions are doing, the victims know where they can go for help, and bystanders learn that it is not acceptable to turn a blind eye. Bringing this issue to the forefront of people’s minds will go a long way toward dealing with the problem. A report by the International Labour Organization reported that physical and emotional violence are becoming some of the biggest issues in the workplace in the 21st century. Fiona Campbell has some final thoughts. “Unless workplace bullying is identified at the start and you bully-proof yourself early on, research indicates that most victims will eventually leave the job. Remember, it’s not your fault. There is no room for self-blame. To bully-proof yourself, have a good support system at your workplace and a good support system outside of work when you are dealing with a bully.” Campbell suggests that victims contact the company’s HR department if they are knowledgeable, find out if there are anti-bullying policies, find out the grievance procedures in the organization, and never lose sight of the fact that it is not your fault. * Name has been changed to ensure anonymity for Fiona Campbell and the organization she no longer works for.

“I believe bullying is the single most important social issue of today.” Tim Field, a workplace bullying victim, creator of the website Bully Online, and author of Bully in Sight.

This article was originally published in the Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Newsletter

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