Workplace bullying

Most people spend a staggering percentage of their waking hours at work. This makes it not just worrying but totally unacceptable when they have to put up with behaviour from colleagues, managers or bosses that fails to meet even the most basic levels of consideration and respect.

It used to be that most bullies, sadists or misanthropes would, like the rest of us, not only dress up for work but also curtail their emotions and behaviour, saving their infantile rages, self-centred demands, foul mouths or manipulations for those unlucky enough to live with them.

That seems to have changed. Work is no longer a place where personal boundaries are routinely respected. Over the last few months I have been hearing some hair-raising stories of bullying, shunning, undermining, manipulation, sarcasm, unreasonable and contradictory demands, lying, disloyalty, unfair accusations, temper tantrums and sulking – often delivered with a tremendous sense of entitlement and with virtually no expectation that these behaviours will harm the bully’s own career rather than the people around them.

There is something seriously wrong here. Every company, every organization has in place at least some basic guidelines about how people should be treated as well as what they can expect to happen if someone treats them quite differently. Yet in none of the situations that I have been hearing about was there any expectation that the negativity would be dealt with promptly or effectively by those in power. The bullies were not held accountable – and they should have been. These examples include stories from large companies and small, as well as the public sector and non-government organizations. Sometimes, of course, the bullying culture starts at the top, and then, it seems, there’s nowhere to turn.

It can certainly be tricky to prove that someone is bullying or belittling and that it is not just a matter of your perceptions. This is particularly true when bullying take the form of passive aggression – not supporting, responding, co-operating; using “”power”” to halt, stall or stymie other people’s ideas or workflow; manipulating situations to make others look “”bad”” – and feel worse.

Bullying behaviour is highly SELF-focused, and bullies are often highly adept at shifting their conduct depending on who they are trying to impress or crush.  But sometimes their bad behaviours are flagrant, with many people witnessing them or feeling their effects – and still nothing is done. No one is sacked or cautioned and, just like the child who fails to get the guidance they need, often that bullying person’s behaviour will grow worse as they recognise that there are, in fact, no external constraints.

Perhaps the worst of these excesses is when someone seems literally to gain power through their negativity, when bullying is mistaken for strength or when “playing favourites” or “dividing and conquering” is misunderstood as people management.

It seems almost incredible that any twenty-first century organization could not know how negatively this kind of primitive behaviour will affect their bottom line. And surely that, at least, counts for something? When people feel hurt, disregarded and frightened, it is impossible for them to do their best work.  I feel embarrassed to write down something so obvious, yet in companies or organizations where bullying, teasing, tormenting, insecurity, unfairness and cruelty are allowed to flourish – even, sometimes, to dominate the work culture – there seems to be a total disconnect about what brings out the best in people and how inevitably and immediately ugly behaviour affects the way a company makes money as well as the amounts of money it will make.

It is easy to say that people should leave their jobs when faced with bullying, but even if this were always possible, that isn’t a solution. We need to hold the bullies responsible for their actions – and not make excuses for them. We need cultural change – making bullying in all its forms as unacceptable as any other form of violence. And we need to talk far more intelligently and openly about the shared conditions under which people flourish – or suffer.