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Breaking the bully cycle

Friday, 24 May 2019

Frog Recruitment’s tips for dealing with a workplace bully

This week has shown New Zealand Parliament is not immune to workplace bullying - highlighting that bullying is widespread in New Zealand workplaces, a recent Frog Recruitment poll reveals.

Jane Kennelly, Frog Recruitment Managing Director says when more than 30 managers in New Zealand organisations were asked whether they had ever been bullied in their workplace or if they’d witnessed a colleague getting bullied, nearly all - 94% of respondents said they had been or had witnessed bullying.

“It’s a staggering and concerning statistic and a sad indictment on New Zealand workplaces of all shapes and sizes. And it’s got to change,” she says.

There are three main ways workplace bullying can manifest itself, according to psychologist and bullying- specialist author Aryanne Oade.

Oade says that in order for an incident to be classed as workplace bullying, three elements need to be present, whether they are subtle and indirect or outright and obvious. The three elements are: one-off, frequent or repeated personal attacks which a person finds emotionally hurtful or professional harmful; a deliberate attempt by the bully to undermine a person’s ability to carry out their work or to injure their reputation or to undermine their self-esteem; or a deliberate attempt by the bully to remove personal power from a colleague and keep the power for themselves.

From more than 30 years of working with job seekers and company’s recruiting staff, Kennelly has found bullying to be a common reason for candidates to seek a new job and recommends some basic strategies for people to deal with bullying.

“Speak up. Most people fear that by speaking out they will escalate the situation, especially if the bully is their senior. Not speaking up though can make it easier for the bully to continue the behaviour. Try and deal with the situation promptly, which allows the person being bullied to have control over the situation and can often change the power dynamic.”

Kennelly also recommends countering the bully’s remarks by asking them to validate their comments, as often they are slanderous. The use of confident body language is also important, which can disarm a bully. She recommends documenting every conversation or incident that could be interpreted as bullying behaviour.

In her experience, she has witnessed many cases where it is management who are doing the bullying. In this instance, she suggests talking to an employment advocate or lawyer.

“A healthy workplace is a productive workplace. It is vital for management or senior leaders to foster a team atmosphere and encourage people to work together and support each other. Bullying will only stop when the leaders stop tolerating it. It needs to be stamped out immediately – don’t waste time – get on to it immediately.”

For those who are witnessing bullying happening in their workplaces, Jane also has some strategies to follow.

“Keep a diary of the mistreatment and keep records of any emails or communications that may contain mean-spirited comments. You can also support the person being bullied in private if that feels more comfortable. Share with management or HR and while you may not be the bully’s target, you may find the atmosphere toxic and that has proven to impact your wellbeing.”

Kathy Cunningham experienced workplace bullying while in a chief executive role.

“The bullying came from a dysfunctional board with two members, one in particular being divisive in every way. I’d never witnessed or experienced this type of behaviour. It is soul destroying and just zaps the energy and enthusiasm from you. I questioned how I was making decisions and my confidence waned. These extreme emotions continued until I spoke with a lawyer and received support from the Chair who assured me that my actions were appropriate.

“I’ve recently spoken with other senior leaders who’ve been bullied by their board, which shocks me. My advice to them is to seek a legal opinion, gather support from other board members and speak up immediately. I am appalled that this type of behaviour exists at the highest levels,” she said.

Cunningham is no longer working in the organisation but says her experience draws advice for those who are experiencing bullying at any level of a business.

“Make sure you are supported at home and with other colleagues and friends. Make self-care a priority and see your GP if sleep is difficult or anxiety exists. I walked a lot which helped immensely.”

How to deal with being bullied

· Speak up. Most people fear that by speaking out they will escalate the situation, especially if the bully is their senior. It’s important to speak up about it as complying can make it easier for the bully to continue this behaviour

· Try and deal with the situation promptly. This allows the person being bullied to have control over the situation and changes the power dynamic in these situations.

· Counter the bully’s remarks by asking them to validate their comments as they are usually slanderous and mostly untrue

· Use confident body language - many bullies are on the look-out for signs of confusion or distress which they can exploit, this form of bully-proofing enables targets to avoid appearing vulnerable even when they feel it.

· If you aren’t able to resolve the issue informally, talk to management, HR or - where applicable - your trade union. It can help to have a body of evidence, so try to note down all incidents of bullying to show as examples. If your company fails to help you, consider talking to an employment lawyer.

How should a leader or supervisor respond to this kind of bullying

· Foster a team atmosphere and encourage people to work together and support one another.

· If, despite your best efforts, you still have an employee that bullies another employee, address it right away. If you have a human resources department, be sure to bring it to their attention.

· If your company is small and does not have an HR manager or team, talk with the employee about his or her actions. Document the incident in the employee’s file. Include details about the incident, information about your meeting, as well as dates, times and witnesses so that you have this information should the employee bully the same person again or a different person. At the close of the meeting, be sure that the offending employee knows what could happen if he or she continues to bully others.

· Speak with them both separately. Do not pull the victim of the bullying into the meeting with you, this can make the target feel very uncomfortable

· Follow up on the situation, situations like these need constant moderating and are not always a quick fix.

What to do if you notice a colleague being bullied at work?

· Write down the details of the mistreatment soon after you witness it.

· Keep emails that include evidence of bullying. When you are copied on a mean-spirited email it may be tempting to immediately delete it. Instead, create an email folder for such correspondence and save the “nasty gram” to that folder. You never know when you, or the target, may need such evidence.

· Reach out to the target privately.

· Support the target in group settings.

· Share what you know with HR when you see a pattern of bullying.

· Take care of yourself. It can be easy to discount the impact of a toxic work environment if you are not the target of hostility, but even witnessing bullying can impact your wellbeing.


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