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Bullying at Work

Updated: Aug 22

Author(s): Aisha Abdulrahman, Khadija Chauhan, and Laiba Israr

Bullying is generally a very broad term that refers to a variety of aggressive and

intimidating behaviours. Workplace bullying is defined as the ongoing process within the

workplace where an employee is repeatedly exposed to abusive behaviour by one or more co-workers or a supervisor. In these situations, the victim is usually in a position where it is difficult to defend themselves and is provided with little support from their workplace (Del Cason et al., 2020). Particularly relevant nowadays, workplace cyberbullying refers to negative behaviour that occurs online within a work context (Vranjes et al., 2018). Workplace bullying, in any form, has a number of negative consequences on the victim, bystanders, and the overall organization (Del Cason et al., 2020). Much of the responsibility to provide employees with a positive work environment falls on the human resource department in their response to incidents. This responsibility includes appropriately handling bullying incidents, being impartial, and most importantly, working to eliminate workplace bullying (Bullying in the Workplace, 2017).

Bullying Effects on Employees and Organizations

Workplace bullying is categorized as a severe stressor for victims and witnesses alike. Being the direct target of bullying is associated with a variety of psychological, physical, and work-related problems. Victims may experience symptoms like increased anxiety, depression, burnout, and a negative attitude on work. Bullying is also understood as a very interpersonal phenomenon, meaning it has impacts beyond the victim. Studies indicate that witnesses to bullying may experience symptoms of guilt, insomnia, and headaches. When workplace bullying is consistent, victims and bystanders could interpret this as a psychological contract violation. This refers to the perceived non-fulfillment of the organizational promise to provide employees with respectful treatment and a safe workplace (Salin & Notelaers, 2020). Workplace cyberbullying in particular can be damaging to victims due to anonymity, high accessibility, and potential audience. Victims may feel they are unable to escape online abuse, which can intrude on their home/personal life and result in a variety of health problems (Vranjes et al., 2018).

The physical and psychological impact of workplace bullying on employees has a

number of negative consequences on the organization. Bullying results in lower

performance/productivity from employees, lower job satisfaction, and lower organizational commitment. This results in higher turnover intentions, and in some cases, increases overall turnover (Salin & Notelaers, 2020). Bullying behaviour in the workplace is also a contributorto employee absenteeism. This is an efficiency issue for organizations because it directly affects productivity. Absenteeism resulting from bullying is often due to the health impairments and lack of work engagement bullying causes. Bullying is a stressor that contributes to poorer physical and mental health; when these symptoms are severe, they can affect an employee’s overall ability to attend work. Employees may also choose to be absent from work as a way to escape a toxic, stressful work environment. Poor health also impacts an employee's motivation and drive to do meaningful work, which is associated with worse attendance. These effects impact the overall well-being of employees and the entire company (Magee et al., 2017).

Human Resources and Employee Response to Bullying

The way employees and organizations respond to incidents of bullying will influence much of the personal and organizational effects that follow. The HR departments in organizations have a major role to play when bullying occurs because they hold much of the responsibility in creating a positive work environment. Since bullying can have severe negative effects on victims and the organization, it is crucial for HR to take action and settlethe issue in as timely and effective a manner as possible. An effective response from the organization will reduce the possibility of bullying incidents in the company going forward. In order for HR personnel to respond to bullying complaints efficiently, they must have proper knowledge and skills. Ideally, HR personnel should conduct an unbiased investigation, communicate throughout to keep everyone involved informed, and ensure the complainant is supported and aware of their options. When a complaint is made, HR personnel should first gather information to make sense of the accusation and determine if investigation is needed (Bullying in the Workplace, 2017). Perception of what constitutes bullying will differ, especially when the intensity of the perpetrator’s actions are ambiguous, which can complicate the response process (Carson et al., 2020). HR response is also largely influenced by organizational culture. A culture of bullying may be the reason for inadequate or no HR action. Timely response is important because victims often become frustrated when they perceive a lack of progress. HR personnel should inform victims about the outcome of their complaint once a decision is reached. Perceived inadequate HR response can have a number of negative consequences on the organization and victims (Bullying in the Workplace, 2017).

Individual responses to workplace bullying are often influenced by their coping style. Employees who are victims of bullying learn to cope using their own methods, which influences the effects these incidents have on them. Coping strategies are what victims use to respond to the negative mental, emotional, and physical tolls that bullying has on them. These strategies occur when victims make mental and behavioural attempts to either reduce or accept workplace stressors (Van den Brande et al., 2020). Bystanders also respond to bullying situations differently depending on their coping style. They may choose to avoid situations of bullying instead of intervening or offering support. Some witnesses may cope by intervening; this is common when bystanders are immersed in the incident, which may include direct confrontation (Del Cason et al., 2020). Sometimes, coping strategies can fluctuate depending on the situation; in other cases, coping responses can be relatively stable over situations and time. These coping strategies for victims can be problem-focused and thus oriented at facing and overcoming the issue, or emotion-focused by managing emotions resulting from the stressor. Active coping, planning for incidents, and seeking support from the community are important strategies that can be beneficial responses to bullying. Others may respond by venting their frustrations or disengaging entirely, which can be emotionally effective (Van den Brande et al., 2020).

Recommendations for Organizations

Organizations can greatly benefit and strengthen their anti-bullying position by acknowledging workplace bullying and working to develop methods to help resolve these issues. This includes working toward prevention of bullying and addressing these incidents effectively when they do occur.

In regard to prevention, developing and communicating a zero-tolerance policy for bullying will reassure employees that support is available and that their workplace cares about preventing bullying. To promote a positive work environment and prevent incidents, organizations should ensure all employees are aware of what constitutes bullying and how to communicate with coworkers appropriately. This extends to online communication because, as we know, workplace bullying extends to cyberbullying and can have severe consequences on employees (Vranjes et al., 2018). Organizations should implement bullying awareness and prevention seminars to educate all their employees on these concepts. This demonstrates responsibility and care for employee wellbeing on the part of the organization. Organizations that fail to educate their employees on what constitutes bullying may cause victims to feel more vulnerable due to the perceived lack of support. Implementing employee mental health programs to build better methods for handling work stressors will provide employees with guidance and support on handling stressful situations. The programs can focus on helping employees identify different coping mechanisms and ways to address stressful and confrontational workplace situations (Van den Brande et al., 2020). Additionally, encouraging communication between HR personnel and employees will help foster a more positive workplace where victims feel supported. This extends to creating a system for victims to bring their complaint to HR. It also may be helpful for HR personnel to work with different employee units and teams and ensure the cultures within those teams are supportive and reflective of the zero-tolerance bullying policy. This kind of interaction between HR and employees is important in keeping HR personnel involved and aware of bullying incidents so they can intervene early (Bullying in the Workplace, 2017).

If successful in fostering a safe and positive workplace, incidents should be rare, and

when they do occur, employees should feel supported when making complaints. When these complaints are made, it is HR’s responsibility to address these issues in a timely, supportive, and impartial manner. HR personnel should be properly trained and equipped with the skills necessary to address complex incidents of bullying. There should be a procedure in place when these issues occur that ensures evidence is gathered in a timely manner while victims are supported, and all parties are communicated to throughout the process. Delaying the process will only complicate the issue further and potentially enable more toxicity (Bullying in the Workplace, 2017).


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