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Boardroom Bullying

Published : June 07, 2015

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but vicious rumours can destroy my career.

By : Jessica Luca


You may have left the playground years ago but the bullies encountered there may have well and truly followed you into the boardroom.

When you hear the word ‘bullying’, the first thing you think of is an oversized eleven year-old tripping over a seven-year-old and taking their lunch money.

If you were to look twenty or thirty years into the future, and replace ‘oversized’ with ‘power-hungry’ and ‘lunch money’ with ‘career’, you’ve got something a little closer to today’s corporate world.

It’s not usually what a company will put on the promotional material, but there’s an ugly side to every profession, in every workplace.

Workplace bullying is becoming a more salient problem as society becomes increasingly money-hungry and materialistic. 
Power is an important motivator and many people don’t worry about how many toes they step on or how many careers they shatter in the scramble to get to the top of the corporate ladder.

Bullying in the workplace is more than the usual sticks and stones insults that get thrown around by kids in the playground.  That’s not to diminish the impact that childhood taunting can have on a person, but the reality is; threatening behaviour in a working environment can be illegal and unethical.

The ramifications can resonate far beyond the individual’s personal level, and detrimentally affect their financial position and family life.  It’s troubling to think that the cool kids in the playground haven’t yet grown out of using nasty scare tactics to get what they want.

Some phrases bandied about in media and publications distributed by various human resources departments include ‘occupational violence’, ‘internal violence’, and ‘workplace harassment’.

But no matter how the wordsmiths want to dress it up, when it comes down to it,workplace bullying is just plain wrong.  It shouldn’t happen, but sadly it does.

Bullying in the workplace can be anything that makes a person feel threatened, intimidated, offended or degraded in any way.  It can come from any direction, whether the boss is being bullied by subordinates, or from peer-to-peer, or a topdown abuse of power. 

The abuse can range from unwanted sexual attention, to insulting remarks, right through to extreme cases involving physical harm.  Even receiving the praise for someone else’s idea is unethical and an inappropriate treatment of peers or subordinates.

In most cases it is a continual, repetitive and unrelenting unwanted attention.

Playing mind games and manipulating your workmates is not, as some might argue, a good business tactic but is exploitative and wrong.

An employer should be in touch with his or her team and recognise the signs of workplace bullying amongst staff.  A manager who sees the signs and turns a blind eye; doeslittle to rectify the situation, or even encourages the adverse behaviour can be personally responsible for the harm caused to the bullied employee.

If you are being bullied, do something about it.  It’s just that simple. 

There is no shame in admitting to someone that your life is being made miserable by water-cooler gossip or unfair treatment.  No one has a right to force you out of your role or chosen profession, just so they can get ahead.  There may even be grounds for criminal charges to be laid, depending on the nature and severity of the bullying.

Similarly, if you feel like you may be perpetrating the inappropriate behaviour, for whatever reason, it is important for you to speak with someone.
It is fairly easy to fall into the trap of climbing the corporate ladder, and doing whatever it takes to get there.
You can forget that the people around really are people, with feelings, fears and families for whom they must provide sound financial and emotional support. 

Managers and supervisors shouldn’t exploit their position by setting impossible standards and tasks for the people answering to them. 

Superiors should also be careful about the sort of workplace they create, as forcing an overly competitive and cut-throat environment provides the perfect breeding ground for workplace bullying amongst peers.

The promotion of an honest and open workplace in which fears, frustrations and trepidations are aired comfortably is important to discourage bullying.

Keep in mind that a reasonable request by an employer is not bullying, and a responsible and professional approach must be taken towards all workplace interactions.

Favouritism shouldn’t exist in the workplace and the playing field should be equal, praise and criticism being offered only where it is warranted.

When constructive criticism is offered it should be relevant only to the work product and performance of the employee, and should never be of a personal nature.

In a professional environment personal lives are just that – personal.  Don’t fight fire with fire.  Two wrongs will not make a better working environment, and will probably exacerbate the situation.  You are less likely to get results if you lower yourself to the level of the games the bully is playing.

In primary school, teachers weren’t approached because the punishment for ‘dobbing’ was worse than the initial bullying.  This mentality can’t be carried from the classroom to the boardroom, and it’s essential that you speak up if you are being bullied in a professional environment.  The stakes are higher, and the potential damage is not worth keeping quiet.

That doesn’t make it any easier, and it’s still daunting to approach someone to admit you’re being adversely affected by the actions of a workmate or superior.

There’s the risk that the person you’re turning to won’t believe you or will dismiss your reaction as mere over-sensitivity.  Try to remain poised and professional throughout the whole ordeal, even though it’s tough when someone is trying their best to stunt your professional growth.

Who do you turn to?

Once you’ve worked up the courage to tell someone about your situation, how do you know who you should trust?

Depending on the circumstances, initially the best thing to do might be to try resolving the issue with the bully.  If that doesn’t work, a good place to vent your concerns is with your workplace’s Human Resources department, or with a Union Representative.

Kylie Boyle, a Union Organiser from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association recommends that if you feel you are being bullied, the first thing to do is to document the incidents.

This includes writing down what was said, what was done, what time of the day, and under what circumstances the bullying occurred.  Also make a note of who is around and may have seen or heard the interaction between you and the bully.  If you feel you can no longer work in that environment, Kylie recommends alerting management of the bullying if it is coming from a co-worker of equal status.

In situations where managers themselves are the bullies it may be wise to make another member of staff aware of the situation.  It’s then important to approach the manager to work towards a resolution.  If you don’t feel comfortable liasing personally with the manager, you can ask the third party to accompany you or act on your behalf if they are familiar with the circumstances.

Hopefully, making someone aware of the bullying will lead to change in the workplace. 

The bully may be required to attend a counselling session to discuss the way they conduct themselves in a professional environment.  The bully will learn that their behaviour won’t be tolerated, and there can be written or verbal disciplinary action.

It might be appropriate for the bully to be issued with a warning, with such warnings tending to be first and final warnings.  Kylie mentions that in her role she will deal with issues of workplace bullying once every two or three months, but is quick to add there are many more instances going unreported, or being dealt with internally.

“People keep quiet about these things because they think no one will listen to them, it’ll get swept under the carpet, or they’ll be transferred out of their comfort zone,” Kylie says.  “We’ll be notified generally when people are at their boiling point, at the end of their tether, but we don’t hear about it all the time.”

When asked why she thinks people bully, Kylie says simply, “They do these things because at the end of the day they can, because they have been able to get away with it in the past, or they might have been put through that themselves and … they think that’s the way people should be treated.”

It’s an unfortunate reality that workplace bullying exists in any professional environment.  Everyone has a responsibility to make sure the big kids in the playground don’t get away with making other people’s lives miserable.

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