Boss or bully? How to deal with workplace bullying

By Dr Mary Grogan

Boss or bully? How to deal with workplace bullying
Traditionally the best way to deal with workplace bullying was to find a job elsewhere, unfair as that may seem. We find out if this is still the best advice.

Most of us like to believe we live in a just world. A world where good triumphs over evil and the bad guys are punished. Psychologists even have a name for this: the “just world hypothesis”.

But in the area of workplace bullying, it seems that traditionally the bullies win. At least until recently. WorkSafe New Zealand’s best practice guidelines “Preventing and responding to workplace bullying” came out in February 2014. Included in the guidelines are ways of dealing with workplace bullying situations with real-life examples.

WorkSafe uses the same definition of bullying as used by Safe Work Australia: “Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.” This behaviour includes “victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person”.

WorkSafe’s definition of bullying differentiates between personal attacks, such as belittling remarks, and task-related attacks, such as setting employees unmanageable workloads and impossible deadlines. A point to note is that a single incident of unreasonable behaviour is not considered workplace bullying, though it should not be ignored as it may escalate.

The idea behind the guidelines was to develop a consistent definition of workplace bullying and to provide avenues of help for those seemingly trapped in toxic work environments, feeling like they had little recourse. There are levels of action people can take, from “low-key solutions” – for example, managers reminding staff individually about the workplace code of conduct – to more formal actions such as laying a complaint.

Much as we’d like to think New Zealand and Australia are equitable countries where people are given a fair go, the research on the prevalence of bullying might give us pause: In New Zealand, workplace bullying affects 16-20 per cent of the workforce, while in Australia estimates range from 3.5 to 21.5 per cent (the variation is due to different measurement approaches).

Since the guidelines have come out in New Zealand bullying complaints have risen sharply, but this is thought to be due to greater awareness, through people putting a name to their experiences, rather than evidence that bullying itself is on the rise.

Professor Tim Bentley is director of the New Zealand Work Research Institute. He has been part of three recent New Zealand studies on bullying and agrees that things are better than they used to be pre-guidelines.

“We used to say that the target’s best option was to quit as they could expect no support from the organisation, especially if the bully is a more senior member.”

But he also points to some harsh realities: “Organisations usually keep bullies, even when a complaint has been upheld … commonly the target leaves the organisation and the bully remains.” Whether as an outcome of mediation or the target quitting because of lack of organisational support, this is the usual outcome.

An unfortunate reality, which many who have been bullied are aware of, is that many managers treat bullying as a purely interpersonal issue, possibly labelling it as a personality conflict or difference of opinion, and leave the target to try and deal with it.

According to Bentley, “Targets are not usually poor performers – and the bully seeks to make them seem unproductive. Commonly mentioned negative acts include withholding important information from the target, not telling them about messages or meetings, spreading rumours, taking credit for the target’s work.”

Unjust rewards

This was the case with Sharon, a middle manager in the health service. Someone who gave 110 per cent to her work, Sharon worked long hours and commonly sacrificed her weekends to deliver to a high standard. Sharon had always excelled at work until she moved to her current workplace, where she noticed over time that she was left out of emails and meetings about projects she was meant to be part of. When she queried this with her manager, she was told not to make excuses for her poor performance. That’s when it started to sink in that she was being undermined.

“As with bullying at school, a lot of the harm is caused by the knowledge that you are being targeted personally, ” Bentley says.

It is thought that personal attacks are more emotionally damaging than undergoing a natural disaster, and interpersonal violence is especially hard for people to understand. People develop a stress response due to the unpredictability of not knowing when it will happen next.

Not only that, but the harm caused by bullying spreads as a ripple effect to those around the bully and the target. “Witnesses to bullying experience similar negative outcomes in terms of stress, health effects, performance, intention to quit and so on,” Bentley says.

This fits with the phenomenon known as emotional contagion. We now have good evidence that stress is catching. Research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology has shown that just watching another person in a stressful situation can stress us out. Getting stressed by watching someone else getting stressed is stronger when the subject under stress is someone we care about (for example, partners rather than strangers). So bullying may well have serious effects not only on the target, but on other team members, too.

Cynics may say that people have always had “bad bosses” (who are ineffective at managing people) and that bad management practices are commonplace. Bentley points out that bosses can have bad management practices that can exhibit as bullying.

An example of this can be seen in Deb’s story. Deb, who worked in education, was shocked at her boss’s attitude toward her work. This included constant monitoring of her work (even to the extent of pointedly looking at her watch each morning as Deb walked in and making comments such as, “what time do you call this?”) and throughout the day walking into her office to point out things she hadn’t done and criticise the tasks she had completed. Constant work-overload meant Deb could never keep up with the deadlines and felt increasingly stressed.

According to Bentley, “a good manager will seek to promote a healthy work environment; a bad manager may either bully [others] herself, turn a blind eye to bullying or even excuse it.”

What’s the best thing to do?

It can be hard to know where to go when you are feeling demoralised and it is common to doubt yourself and your experience. One way of combating this is to familiarise yourself with what behaviours constitute bullying and the difference between bullying and other similar forms of ill treatment, including harassment and discrimination (well addressed in the guidelines). As the saying goes, with knowledge comes power.

Bentley suggests carefully documenting what happens and when. Next, find a trusted person to talk to. This may be a colleague or, in an ideal situation, the organisation will have a contact person.

Telling the perpetrator their behaviour is unwelcome and causing you harm can be effective. It’s best not to call the behaviour bullying, as it is necessary to undertake an investigation to determine this – just call it unwelcome behaviour. It is important to report it if it continues. Hopefully the organisation will have a good reporting system and will take the complaint seriously.

Bentley is encouraged by the fact that more and more organisations are making a commitment to becoming bully-free workplaces by having policies that promote respect and dignity. Though this is an important step, organisations need good communication of their policies and clear expectations of behaviour, so people can feel comfortable and supported in addressing bullying when they see it (including all levels of leaders, managers and human resource teams).

If you attempt to solve a bullying problem directly, there will unfortunately be occasions where the response you get is either not skilful, not helpful or even may be downright hostile. In these situations, support and self-care is crucial.

It may sound obvious but a healthy working environment should be a reasonable expectation for all members of the workforce. Though we have come some way in creating a fairer environment in our workplaces thanks to bullying guidelines, workers need to continue to look out for each other.

Workplace bullies

Bullies in the workplace can generally be characterised into the following types:

The chronic bully

Chronic bullies are by far the most hazardous. They conceptualise themselves as being superior and powerful and are possibly not capable
of empathy.

The opportunistic bully

Generally the opportunistic bully is self-centred, ambitious and prepared to win at any cost, which means controlling everything and everyone on their way to success. While they can exhibit similar behaviour to the chronic bully, they tend to be driven more from their own personal ambition.

The situational bully

The situational bully is likely to join a pack and become involved in ‘‘mobbing’’ one or more individuals lower down the hierarchy.


Print Recipe


Let us keep you up to date with our weekly MiNDFOOD e-newsletters which include the weekly menu plan, health and news updates or tempt your taste buds with the MiNDFOOD Daily Recipe. 

Member Login