‘Workplace bullying is like a cancer’

Employers who have robust anti-bullying policies in place are less likely to face actions

Adults may feel that to admit to being bullied at work can be frowned upon and seen as a sign of weakness

Adults may feel that to admit to being bullied at work can be frowned upon and seen as a sign of weakness


Bullying is all too common in the workplace. While there is plenty of legislation to protect workers, many employees can nonetheless feel nervous about acknowledging that bullying is happening, let alone reporting it.

Part of the difficulty is that what constitutes bullying can be incredibly subjective, making it difficult to define. In no doubt, however, is the cost to victims.

According to the Anti-Bullying Centre at Dublin City University (DCU), which was established to carry out research into the subject, the effects of workplace bullying on individuals are widespread and include stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.

But it’s not just individuals who are affected by bullying. Workplaces as a whole suffer, with high levels of absenteeism and staff turnover, costly legal actions and tribunal proceedings, and a loss of public image if the bullying is revealed publicly.

It is estimated that as many as one in three employees could be affected by bullying, according to a recent study by the US job site CareerBuilder. It also found that one in five staff members have left their job because of it.

However, as Dr Genevieve Murray, a consultant and mediator who has researched the topic for more than a decade notes, establishing whether there has been a rise in incidents is not easy.

“In terms of national and international research, it’s very difficult to determine whether incidents of workplace conflict and bullying are increasing or declining. Both employees and employers are fearful of the negative connotations associated with this sensitive topic, the destruction it can unleash and the reputational damage it can leave in its wake. As workplace bullying can be subtle and cunning, it is difficult to measure with statistics,” she said.

Dr Murray and her colleague, organisational psychologist Daniel Hamilton, both work at Stuaim, a company that provides mediation services and training and seminars into conflict and bullying. They say they encountered an increase in incidents during the recession from employees working in both the public and private sector.

Some experts claim that workplace bullying has become “a silent epidemic” because so few individuals are willing to discuss it openly or to take action when finding themselves victims to it. According to Dr Murray, no statistics are available on the underreporting of workplace bullying.

“Individuals may complain to their families and friends about the problem, however not many are prepared to make a complaint or disclose the fact that they are being bullied to researchers. Adults feel that to admit to being bullied at work can be frowned upon and seen as a sign of weakness,” she said.

There is no universal definition for workplace bullying, although Dr Murray says there is a general consensus regarding the frequency and duration of negative behaviours experienced by victims.

“One should be mindful that, in some cultures, behaviours that are accepted and the ‘norm’ could be interpreted differently in other cultures. This is particularly pertinent with multinationals and multicultural workforces,” she said. “The costs of cases in terms of financial outlay can be substantial and this is not helped by the lack of clarity in relation to what constitutes bullying,” Dr Murray added.

While there may be no universal definition, employers in Ireland largely abide by the Health and Safety Authority’s (HSA) definition, which sees it as “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work”.

There may be no hard statistics on whether incidents of workplace bullying are increasing or not, but Patrick Walshe, a partner at the legal firm Philip Lee, believes it is certainly a growth area in employment law.

“In general, and based on my own experience, I definitely think there has been an increased awareness in relation to bullying claims in recent years and I suspect that the number of claims is on the rise,” he said.

Mr Lee, who believes that current legislation is sufficient for dealing with claims, said that while obvious bullying behaviour such as aggressive conduct is easy enough to establish, situations in which an employee says they’ve been bullied in a more subtle manner are harder to prove.

“A physical injury can be proved one way or the other. Psychological injuries on the other hand are obviously largely within the head and so it’s much more difficult to assess whether an employee is genuinely injured or not,” he said.

Patricia Murray, an organisational psychologist with the HSA, believes that as people have become more informed about bullying and harassment, and the stigma around it has lessened, individuals are more likely to take action. However, she notes that sometimes people can mix up other types of behaviour with bullying.

“What often happens in areas where an issue has been opened up and it becomes more acceptable for people to report it, is that individuals can ascribe what is happening to them as bullying when it may be conflict instead. The person may think they are the victim of someone’s bad behaviour when in fact they themselves are also behaving negatively,” she said.

“I’d say about one-third of the time, someone is blind to their own engagement in a negative transaction with other people. They don’t necessarily have the self-awareness to realise this and might assure you with absolute conviction that they are correct in their belief without ever accepting they are playing a role in the dynamic,” Ms Murray added.

She said that rather than focusing on an isolated incident, sufficient time has to be given to determine a pattern of bullying behaviour. She added that this is necessary because while bullies may not be easy to identify initially, they usually end up giving themselves away.

“Bullying may be subtle enough initially, but will often increase and become more obvious over time. Bullies get lazy and sloppy and so after a while it becomes obvious what they are doing,” she said.

Even when incidents of bullying have happened, it need not end up in legal proceedings. Ms Murray said that if someone brings it to the attention of managers and/or HR, then a simple reminder sent out to all staff mentioning that inappropriate behaviour has been noted can itself put a stop to things. Unfortunately, however, many employers fail to act on allegations.

“Many managers hope that staff in conflict will just get over it and that one or both of the employees will leave. This probably does work about 60 per cent of the time. It should be noted though that the person who complains will be even more annoyed if they find that no action is to be taken. The failure to do anything can enrage individuals more than the bullying itself a lot of the time,” Ms Murray said.

Such a viewpoint is shared by Mr Walshe who said that leaving problems to foster not only adds to the upset felt by those being bullied but also increases the risk of a court claim taking place.

The smart thing is for employers to have proper procedures in place for dealing with the issue. However, research undertaken by the Anti-Bullying Centre into cases taken to the Employment Appeals Tribunal from June 2013 to September 2015, which referenced bullying, showed more than half of all employers did not have appropriate policies, or if they did, failed to follow the proper procedures.

“Some employers are better than others in terms of having policies that address bullying and in developing an environment in which it just isn’t tolerated, but there are others that are very lax. This is despite the fact that companies are obliged by law to have robust policies and procedures in place,” said Dr James O’Higgins Norman, director of the Anti-Bullying Centre.

“The research shows that companies that do address the issue properly are less likely to have cases taken against them and if actions are taken, are much less likely to lose the case and be made to pay a fine,” he added.

It is critical to ensure that workplace bullying doesn’t take hold, according to Dr Murray, who also stressed the need for training for managers on the issue.

“Workplace bullying is like a cancer. It creeps up on you before you recognise it. Knowing what is and is not bullying behaviour and being aware of how to address it ahead of time is essential,” she said.

Know your rights: What counts as bullying?

Examples of behaviour that may constitute bullying include: Purposely undermining someone Targeting someone for special negative treatment Manipulation of an individual’s reputation Social exclusion or isolation Intimidation Aggressive or obscene language Jokes that are obviously offensive to one individual by spoken word or email Intrusion by pestering, spying and stalking Unreasonable assignments to duties which are obviously unfavourable to one individual Repeated requests with impossible deadline or impossible task.

Source: Health and Safety Authority

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