Dealing with bullying in the workplace: Getting to zero

Benjamin Kluwgant · 08 Jul

Setting up an effective framework to stamp out any workplace bullying is one of the most important roles for HR managers.

Having a peaceful and harmonious work environment paves the way for productivity and fulfilment. If employees feel safe at work, it allows them to bring out their A-game and achieve tremendous outcomes.

On the flip side, having any sort of negativity drifting around the workplace can lead to some pretty damaging results. Not only does it cause poor performance from a quality of work standpoint, but perhaps more importantly, it can have a significant impact on employee wellbeing. 

What does negativity in the workplace mean?

When looking into whether your work environment has negative vibes, it’s important not to blur the lines between stress and negativity.

One way or another, there will always be stressful periods in any workplace. When deadlines are looming or when business is slowing, tension is virtually unavoidable – and that’s okay.

What isn’t okay is when the stress or tension leads to poor behaviour. If people within the business use their colleagues as outlets for their stress relief, it’s all a downhill story from there.

From a people management perspective, it is crucial that HR managers keep a close eye on the way people within the business treat each other. In an ideal world, the company should have a framework which stops bullying from occurring in the first place – but nipping it in the bud isn’t always an option.

In the event that someone within the business witnesses an act of bullying take place in real time, or if someone complains about bullying after the fact, a set of robust policies and procedures need to be developed and followed in order to deal with it appropriately.

The definition of bullying in the workplace

There are all sorts of subtle ways that bullies can prey on vulnerable employees. In order to recognise bully-type behaviour, it’s important to have a very clear understanding about what that behaviour actually involves.

The Australian Fair Work Commission has a very clear set of guidelines on what is and isn’t considered bullying in the workplace.

According to the commission, it’s okay for a manager to take reasonable disciplinary action, make decisions about how tasks need to be carried out, and deal with issues around poor performance. Those types of behaviours aren’t considered bullying.

What the commission does say about bullying is that if anyone within the workplace acts “unreasonably” towards colleagues, or puts a colleague’s health and safety at risk, they have crossed the line and action needs to be taken.

Practically speaking, unreasonable behaviour refers to things like aggression, practical jokes, pressure, exclusion and abuse of power.

One of the issues surrounding these definitions is that there are times when two different people will react to certain behaviours completely differently. This is especially relevant under the practical joke category ­– the very same comment that is laughed at and shrugged off by one person, could be taken very offensively by anther. The question is though, how do you avoid such subjectivity?

Everyone might be laughing – but that doesn’t mean it’s funny.

The old saying that it’s only funny if everyone is laughing, might not be as accurate as one would have thought.

Offensive comments that involve any sort of belittling or mocking, even if they are presented as harmless throwaway jokes, are often not only harmful, but are a gateway for more direct styles of bullying.

In order to save face, the victim of such an offensive comment can often seem totally fine with the comment. In fact, they might even join the laughter.

But, more often than not, that laughter is merely a coverup and the offensive comment can indeed hurt the person’s feelings.

So – if you’re looking to avoid these subjective instances, a company-wide, zero tolerance policy to any such comments needs to be strongly enforced.

Creating a bully-free work environment

Bullying can be a tricky thing to deal with. Even if everyone is clear on the company policies that relate to bullying, it can be difficult (and quite unpleasant) to monitor or police employees all the time.

Here are some ideas for creating a culture within a workplace that deals with bullying in an effective manner:

  1. Encourage whistleblowing

As any person in a position of authority would know, it’s impossible for a manager to be everywhere at once.

This being the case, it’s important to create a culture within the workplace that encourages people to report bullying incidents to upper-management as they see them take place. That way, even when a manager is out tending to other business, they can rest assured that if there is any sort of foul play taking place in their absence – they’ll hear about it.

  1. Use signage in the workplace

It might sound a little primary-school like but having clear signage in the workplace that discourages and condemns bully-type behaviour causes people to take the whole concept more seriously.

  1. Allow for anonymity

Many employees are far more likely to report an incident if they aren’t required to disclose their name in the report.

One way that this can be done is by setting up an online form that doesn’t have any mandatory fields that need to be filled out in order to submit it. This way, the employee can share their version of the story in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

  1. Call out bullying in real time

If bullying takes place under a manager’s nose (for example, at a team meeting) they need to be ready to call it out on the spot, regardless of where it might be taking place.

Managers who take this brazen approach towards calling out bullying as they see it, play an instrumental role in creating bully-free environments.

Bully-free workplaces are a non-negotiable. They keep people’s mental health and wellbeing safe and secure ­– and inspire hard work, productivity and lead to positive work outcomes.