Bullying Takes a Heavy Toll on Workplace Morale, Productivity, Profits and Lives

Former employees of online retailer Amazon were quoted in a recent New York Times story as saying that they regularly see workers crying at their desks. Other former employees said they were criticized for not putting in long hours, even if they were seriously ill. This is just the latest workplace said to be infected by bullying. So what is bullying, how does it impact your business and what should you be doing about it?

* Names changed to protect the identities of the victims.

Mary* works within a large organization in the justice system and recently won a position as a trainer for the organization. The bullying started almost immediately after she stepped into her new position.

“There was a clique there who was obviously not pleased to see me get the position,” says Mary. “One person in particular wouldn’t talk to me, answer questions or provide me with any assistance when I asked for it. When I spoke to my supervisor [in a staff meeting] about requiring some support, the person who had been doing these things spoke up and started belittling me in front of everyone. My supervisor just sat there and allowed it to happen … but then he was part of that same clique.”

Mary later spoke to her supervisor but “he just pretty much laughed it off.”

“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” Mary adds. “It’s a pattern. The last person in my position, who they also didn’t want there, used to leave work in tears and nothing was ever done. She’s no longer a part of the organization.”

Mary notes that people are afraid to confront this group as they fear that they will themselves become targets and that it may come back to affect them professionally.

She remains on the job and is documenting events as they unfold. When asked if there might be something she could do to become an accepted part of what she’s described as a “clique,” her response is immediate. “I wouldn’t want to be a part of their group … I don’t want to be like them.”

A Workplace Epidemic
Mary is one of thousands of employees who report being bullied in the workplace in Canada each year. While the level of awareness that surrounds the phenomenon of bullying has increased dramatically over the past decade, for most of us, however, it’s a problem that’s still considered to be primarily linked to the schoolyard where pink T-shirt days and other initiatives have been introduced to combat the age-old behaviour.

But it’s not just a schoolyard problem, according to Shawn Mitton, the regional prevention manager for WorkSafeBC. “We’re seeing a growing list of health risks in the workplace and bullying and harassment is a big part of that problem,” he says.

WorkSafeBC is a provincial department charged with administering the provisions of the Workers Compensation Act. That Act defines bullying and harassment as “any inappropriate conduct or comment by a person towards a worker that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause that worker to be humiliated or intimidated.”

The legislation involving bullying was strengthened in November of 2013 in response to increasing concerns about the injuries resulting from the behaviour (primarily mental disorders like stress and depression resulting in a loss of work days).

Since that time, WorkSafeBC has received over 5,349 inquiries and complaints regarding workplace bullying and harassment. While many of these calls were for information and were resolved without investigation, 303 were referred to prevention officers to follow up at the employer location. Another 1,165 on-line reports were referred to specialized prevention officers for follow up.

Mitton says that, under the legislation, employers have a duty to incorporate into their staff training a definition of bullying and what to do if an employee is bullied. He says WorkSafeBC will assist in establishing that training component if they are requested to
do so.

“It’s our job to follow up with the employer to find out why it started happening in the first place and why it’s continuing to happen,” says Mitton.

Why People Bully Others
The ‘why’ behind bullying is a subject that is of particular interest to Jennifer Berdahl, PhD, a professor at UBC’s Saunder Business School.

“It’s all connected to the basic concept of trying to exert power over someone and humiliate or denigrate them in some way,” says Berdahl, who has written extensively on the issue.

“And you can do that pretty easily by picking on some aspect of their appearance or work to shame and humiliate them … anything that is a social vulnerability can be used.”

“There are all sorts of bullying,” she says. “I’ve written a lot on ostracism … a sort of shunning that takes place. The victim is ignored and conversations stop when they enter a room. That amounts to social death and can be worse than being actively bullied. It’s like being in solitary confinement and it’s much harder to prove.”

Berdahl says that any bullying is a form of social aggression that everyone probably engages in to some degree at some point in their careers. “There isn’t really a categorical ‘bully’ versus ‘non-bully’… although there are certainly some people with a higher proclivity (for bullying) than others.”

Personality disorders like extreme narcissism or sociopathy can make people more likely to become bullies, says Berdahl.

“Sociopaths who don’t think about the other person’s experience are more likely to engage in this sort of behaviour. And narcissistic bosses are far more likely to be bullies.”

Berdahl cautions, however, that there is a risk of simply blaming the individual bully and not looking at the situation in context. “If a high school bully enters a [work] environment where that behaviour is not in their self interest, they are far more likely to curb that behaviour to the extent that they can.”

When Bullying is Ignored
She says that some workplaces condone or turn a blind eye to bullying, and that, within that context, the phenomenon is likely to thrive.

To that end, says Berdahl, employers can help address the problem by removing any positive reinforcements to bullying and by imposing real consequences for bullies, up to and including termination, if necessary.

It’s an observation that is supported by Robyn Durling, spokesperson for an organization called BullyFreeBC, which was brought together as an ad hoc group to advise the B.C. government about eight or nine years ago. The group incorporated as a non-profit and has continued with a mandate of raising awareness about workplace bullying.

According to Durling, some workplaces find that it’s easier to ignore bullying than to address the issue. “There’s no doubt that there is a reluctance from some employers where they see that to engage in a process [to deal with bullying] might expose them to a greater risk of legal liability.”

“In some industries, it’s endemic,” he says. “I’ve heard of situations where the bully is the top salesman for example … so no one is going to tell the best salesman that he can’t act in that way … he brings in the big sales so the boss gives him a pass.”

Bree* has firsthand experience of bullying as a buck that just keeps getting passed on because no one in authority will deal with the situation. After nearly four years working for a national retail chain, Bree felt that she had a solid future with the organization.

“My performance evaluations were always 4 out of 5 … across the board … and they had promised to send me off to management training. I was getting full-time hours and benefits,” she says.

That’s when a new supervisor was assigned to her section. “For some reason, she hated me from day one,” Bree adds. “She would criticize everything I did, talk about me in front of other workers and all of a sudden my performance reviews dropped to 1s and 2s. I had shifts cancelled for no reason and was being written up almost daily. She told me that I should resign.”

Bree reported the situation to the store manager and eventually to the human resources department. “It turned out that the human resources person was friends with the woman who was bullying me and she ended up supporting her no matter what,” says Bree.

Bree was eventually transferred to another department, but found that the same supervisor would search her out in the store and harass her there.

“I went out on stress leave for a while, but in the end it just wasn’t worth it,” she says. “I quit.”

After experiencing a spike in turnover rates within her department, Bree’s alleged bully was ultimately transferred to another store within the chain. The bully has not been subject to disciplinary action or required to take any training or counselling.

The Toxic Workplace
“The danger,” says Berdahl,” is that we look at a situation and fail to look at it in context. It’s not that some people are just born ‘bad apples’ … a bad barrel will produce bad apples even if there are good apples in there.”

While part of the problem stems from supervisors and managers ignoring bullying or even being bullies themselves, fellow employees have to shoulder some part of the blame.

“Bystanders should be required or expected to step in,” said Berdahl, ”but that isn’t without risk. The person being bullied might be seen as not being able to stand up for themselves, opening the door for further abuse. It can also hurt the bystanders who can open themselves up to bullying as well.”

It’s also the case that bullies do not act alone, according to Berdahl. “A posse … yeah, they can’t get away with it without some level of support. That’s true both in the schoolyard and the workplace,” she says.

“It could just be that people fear them [the bullies] or are indirectly benefitting from giving them that support. Supporting a bully may get them opportunities or resources that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Even if they aren’t bullying themselves, they are supportive and equally to blame.”

Berdahl adds that, from an organizational point of view, when people see that the bully is getting away with the behaviour, the whole workplace becomes more toxic.

Bullying Prevention
Durling feels that the provincial government could be doing a lot more. He says that while improvements in the Workers Compensation Act do address bullying, the prevention of bullying is not its primary purpose.

“The lens that they approach bullying with is from the perspective of injury … that injury being a mental disorder,” he adds. “So it’s not so much about preventing workplace bullying as it is about mental disorders (and the claims arising from those disorders) and their cost to the system.”

What’s needed, says Durling, is a fundamental change in approach.

“First of all, there shouldn’t be a need for a mental disorder before there is a compensable claim,” he says. “It should be much broader than that.”

He feels that someone who is bullied should be able to file a claim regardless of whether they have a diagnosed case of stress or depression — and that claims should be allowed where the workplace has just become too toxic for a worker to continue. Employers, for their part, should work proactively by being aware of signals like increased absenteeism or high staff turnover in a specific section of their organization; both are signs that something may be seriously wrong.

Heather Hettiarachchi, a labour lawyer with Kent Employment Law in Victoria, agrees that more needs to be done. “Unfortunately, it [bullying] is alive and kicking in the workplace,” she adds.

“There are various reasons for bullying and employers aren’t equipped to determine why someone is doing what they do, so all they can do is to address it by having workplace policies in place, educating and encouraging people to act in a respectful way,” she adds.

“The reality is that often the worst bullying happens by people who are high up the ladder, and organizations don’t really want to deal with the problem … it may take several years before they take action and by then a lot of damage has been done.”

She says that it’s incumbent for all levels of management to be aware of what’s going on in their organizations and to deal with dysfunctional situations sooner than later, even if that means retraining or disciplining long-time senior staff.

Hettiarachchi says it’s key for anyone who is bullied or harassed to document all incidents of bullying and report them every time they occur. That’s particularly true since bullies are often “quite insidious,” she says.

“Yes, they [bullies] tend to ‘kiss up and kick down’ … it’s quite common. They are often seen by employers as being good employees, particularly by supervisors who only see the good side of them.”

“Document, document, document…” urges Berdahl. “The better you record bullying behaviour, the harder it is for an employer to ignore it and it keeps it from being a ‘he said, she said’ scenario.’”

But at present, even good documentation may do little to compensate an employee who is subjected to continual harassment. Compensation claims are only possible if a mental disorder results from the bullying and legal recourse is problematic.

“It’s far better to resolve the matter without a lawyer,” said Hettiarachchi, “although a lawyer can get involved as a mediator to try to get the parties to work things out amicably. If a suit is launched for constructive dismissal, it becomes far more adversarial.”

“Let’s face it,” says Durling, “someone who is making minimum wage isn’t going to hire a lawyer to sue, so they are left without any practical remedy.” He says this is why the legislation needs to change to make being bullied a compensable claim against an employer, regardless of whether a mental disorder results.

“It really should be about improving the workplace,” says Hettiarachchi. “There should be training and policies in place to help curb this sort of behaviour so that lawsuits and compensation claims aren’t even an issue. Let’s face it, it’s just good business.”