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How to spot and stop workplace bullying

It is sad but true that bullying is still a significant issue in many organisations. Safe Work Australia reported in 2017 that 37% of workers had been sworn or yelled at in the workplace. If left unaddressed, workplace bullying can manifest and have a devastating effect on victims, teams and businesses. The damage can be widespread and irreparable.

Employers must act to stamp out bullying in the workplace, and proactively encourage a culture that does not allow for bullying or harassment of any kind.

We tackle the what, why and how of eliminating bullying in the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying can present itself in many ways, and can sometimes go on behind the scenes. Even behind screens. Cyber bullying has grown to become an issue both in and out of the workplace. Emails and instant messaging apps are easy to hide behind. Social media can be great for opening lines of communication, but if misused, it can cause someone severe emotional distress.

Other forms of workplace bullying can include unwanted physical contact, verbal abuse, unwarranted criticism or embarrassment. This can not only happen between colleagues but can also come from the top through an abuse of power. Take the recent case of British businessman Sir Philip Green. He has been blasted for his attempt at silencing former employees who brought a string of allegations against him, including harassment and bullying.

Why is it so important to eradicate bullying in the workplace?

The persistent, antagonistic behaviour associated with bullying can very often have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental and physical health. As an employer, you have a legal obligation to provide a duty of care to your employees. So for this reason alone you will want to eliminate any hostile behaviour like bullying from your organisation.

Aside from the health risks and potential loss of productivity due to low morale, a case of bullying can destroy your business reputation. Taking sexual harassment as one example of bullying, it has the potential to be a PR disaster if it is not dealt with properly.

Since the rise of the #MeToo movement there is massive public interest in supporting victims of sexual harassment. This comes with a demand for cracking down on perpetrators and cultures which let them get away with it. What might seem like a small internal issue can quickly become news on a global scale – unless it is dealt with effectively.

How to prevent bullying at work

Fortunately, there are established approaches that you can take to proactively protect your employees and your business from workplace bullying. Let’s start with your company culture.

Watch out for phrases such as “I was only joking” or “Don’t be so sensitive” being used in jest. These can help you to identify a potential problem. One person’s sense of humour can vary greatly to that of someone else. So you’ll want to encourage a conscientious and inclusive workplace culture that leaves little room for misinterpretation or offence.

You can communicate this with your employees through leading by example. You may also consider offering training. And we would advise having a clear and accessible policy which outlines the behavioural expectations of your employees and managers. It is also a good idea to detail any disciplinary or grievance procedures associated with your anti-bullying policy in your company handbook.

Finally, being approachable for your line managers and employees lets them know that they can come to you for help should a situation become unmanageable.

Bullying in the workplace can be a complex and sensitive issue. Speak to your local HR Dept adviser to be clear on where you stand.