“The standard you walk by is the standard you accept.” ~ Australian of the Year David Morrison
Studies on workplace bullying suggest as many as 96% of people have been victims, and it leaves a permanent impression. Petrina Coventry outlines some things we can do about it.
Despite increasing measures to combat workplace harassment, bullies remain entrenched in organisations. Changes to law and regulation aimed to stamp out the practice altogether, but instead they have transformed bullying into an underground, subversive set of behaviours. Now hidden, these behaviours often remain unaddressed.
In others cases anti-bullying policies can actually work to support perpetrators. Where regulations specify what bullying is some people will cleverly use those rules as a guide to work around. Although these people are no longer bullying in the narrow sense outlined by policies or regulations, their acts of shunning, scapegoating and ostracism have the same effect. Rules that explicitly define bullying create exemptions, or even permissions, for behaviours that do not meet the formal standard.
Anti-bullying rules can help bullies to manipulate without being punished.
These insidious behaviours can remain undetected for long periods of time because they are more difficult to notice or prove. As Kipling Williams and Steve Nida argued in a 2011 research paper, “being excluded or ostracized is an invisible form of bullying that doesn’t leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact”.
“Ostracism” Consequences and Coping
Ostracism means being ignored and excluded by one or more others. Despite the absence of verbal derogation and physical assault, ostracism is painful: It threatens psychological needs (belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence); and it unleashes a variety of physiological, affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses. Here we review the empirical literature on ostracism within the framework of the temporal need-threat model.
The bruises, cuts and blows are less evident but the internal bleeding is real. This new, psychological violence can have severe, long term effects. According to Williams, “Ostracism or exclusion may not leave external scars, but it can cause pain that often is deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury”.
This is a costly issue for both individuals and organisations. No one wins. Individuals can suffer symptoms akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Organisations in which harassment occurs must endure lost time, absences, workers compensation claims, employee turnover, lack of productivity and the risk of costly and lengthy law suits as well as a poor reputation.
So why does it continue?
First: bullies tend to be very good at office politics, working upwards and attack those they consider rivals through innuendo and social networks. Bullies are often socially savvy, even charming. Because of this, they are able to strategically abuse co-workers whilst receiving positive work evaluations from managers.
Secondly: policies aren’t the panacea they are sometimes painted as. If they exist at all they are often ignored or ineffective. Areport by corporate training company VitalSmarts showed only 7% of workers know someone who used an anti-bullying policy in their defence – for the majority, it didn’t work. Plus, we now know some bullies use policy to craft new and seemingly licit means of enacting their power.
Thirdly: cases often go unreported, undetected and unchallenged. This inaction rewards perpetrators and empowers them to continue behaving in the same way. This is confusing for the victim, who is stressed, unsure and can feel isolated in the workplace, undermining the confidence necessary to report the issue. Because of this, many opt for less confrontational path – hoping it will go away in time. It usually doesn’t.
We always need to be mindful of the possibility one of our colleagues is being subject to unacknowledged bullying.
What can you do if colleagues are being shunned and ostracised by peers or managers? The first step is not to participate. However, most people are already likely to be aware of this. More relevant for most people is the need not to become complicit by remaining silent. It’s not enough to abstain from being a bully ~ the onus is on you to take positive steps against harassment where you witness it.
Watch Australia’s Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison’s message about unacceptable behaviour, this attitude is the ONLY attitude that should be acceptable for any ethical leader in a professional role, or as General Morrison’s states, “GET OUT” and go do something else with your life!
By doing nothing you allow psychological attacks to continue. In this way, silent witnesses bear partial responsibility for the consequences of bullying. Moreover, unless the toxic culture that facilitates bullying is undone, logic says you could be the next victim.
However, merely standing up to harassment isn’t likely to be a cure~all solution. Tackling workplace bullying is a shared responsibility. It takes regulators, managers and individuals in co-operation with law, policy and healthy organisational culture.
It’s not enough to abstain from being a bully – the onus is on you to take positive steps against harassment where you witness it.
Organisational leaders in particular need to express public and ongoing support for clearly-worded policies. In doing so, policies begin to shape and inform the culture of an organisation rather than serving only as stand~alone documents. It is critical managers understand bullying’s implications for culture, employee wellbeing and their own personal liability.
When regulation fails ~ the dilemma most frequently seen today ~ we need to depend on individual moral character. Herein lays the ethical challenge. “Character” is an underappreciated ethical trait in many executive education programs, but the moral virtues that form a person’s character are the foundation of ethical leadership.
What can we do about it? Challenging workplace bulling takes vigilance, awareness and courage.
A return to character might diminish the need for articles like this. In the meantime, workplace bullying provides us all the opportunity to practice courage.
Article by Professor Petrina Coventry ~ Feb 7, 2016 ~ As Industry Professor and Director of Development at the University of Adelaide, specialising in the area of organisational and business ethics. She is also a Vincent Fairfax Fellow.