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Understanding workplace bullying and harassment

Insync has found that bullying and harassment within the workplace is a prevalent and serious issue. It is most commonly defined as behaviours such as intimidation, public humiliation, offensive name-calling, social exclusion, and unwanted physical contact. These types of actions have the potential to undermine the integrity and confidence of employees, and can have detrimental effects to the performance of an organisation. We have worked with organisations on staff survey and consulting projects to obtain a clearer picture of what’s happening within their organisation so that urgent actions can be taken for improvement.

A variety of factors can influence workplace bullying and harassment, which may include:

  • Policies and procedures
  • Leadership and management practices
  • Personality and individual differences
  • Organisational change
  • Differing views on performance expectations
  • Power distribution between employees and the structure of the organisation
  • A highly beaurocratic culture

Although many people we speak to view bullying as a “top down” phenomenon, our experience is highlighting that “upward bullying” is on the rise. Irrespective of the origin, it is important when assessing an organisation’s culture to consider the variety of ways bullying and harassment may occur.

Bullying has numerous negative outcomes which include:

  • Severe psychological distress, self-loathing, heightened anxiety and feelings of depression for the victims
  • Reduced organisational effectiveness and heightened costs partly because it renders the victims more likely to both be absent and leave the organisation
  • Physiological problems for victims, such as musculoskeletal pains and chronic fatigue
  • Adverse affects on organisational performance in terms of output, creativity and innovation
  • Victims’ health is likely to worsen over time with the strain becoming increasingly difficult to handle

Organisational psychologists have identified that one of the dangers associated with recurrent bullying and harassment is that it may go beyond colleague-on-colleague abuse and become an accepted, readily perceived or even encouraged, aspect of the culture of an organisation. One major consequence of this process is that it can influence how individuals perceive the environment.  Namely, employees are more likely to perceive lower levels of support and higher occurrences of bullying and harassment. On the basis of perceiving a threat they may retaliate in counterproductive behaviours themselves. This reciprocal cycle further embeds social norms into the workplace which foster a climate of hostility and counter productiveness.

One interesting observation is that because some people expect to be bullied, they are more inclined to perceive it. And, in retaliation, it is not uncommon for some people to react by engaging in counterproductive behaviours themselves. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for major organisational change to influence the reports of bullying within the workplace.

Insync takes a balanced viewpoint that bullying and harassment is not a factor to be considered lightly. It is imperative to understand it from multiple perspectives to truly gain an accurate picture of what is really happening in the organisation so that things can be improved.

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