Being Bullied at Work?
by Gene Shemetak
In recent years, workplace bullying has become an important topic in occupational health and safety. Recognizing the serious impacts of workplace bullying on productivity, employee satisfaction, staff turnover, and health costs has led to the introduction of legislation to address the issue in many jurisdictions. Accreditation Canada introduced a new Required Organizational Practice on Workplace Violence Prevention in 2010 that incorporates a requirement to consider a continuum of types of violence and develop a program to prevent and manage them. Numerous articles have highlighted the destructiveness of the workplace bully and greater numbers of workers are speaking out about their own experiences with a workplace bully.
According to the CCOHS article “Bullying in the Workplace”, bullying is seen as “acts or verbal comments that could ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate a person in the workplace; …it usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviours that is intended to intimidate, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people.”
A partial list of examples provided in the article includes;
- spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo that is not true
- excluding or isolating someone socially
- intimidating a person
- undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work
- physically abusing or threatening abuse
- removing areas of responsibilities without cause
- constantly changing work guidelines
- establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail
- withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information
- making jokes that are ‘obviously offensive’ by spoken word or e-mail
- intruding on a person’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
- assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavourable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)
- underwork – creating a feeling of uselessness
- yelling or using profanity
- criticising a person persistently or constantly
- belittling a person’s opinions
- unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
- blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
- tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment.
In many cases, there is an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim, with supervisors and managers often the perpetrators. However, this is not uniformly the case, as it is also possible for the bully to report to the victim. And we must also consider that the hierarchy of the organization does not always reflect the nature of power in an organization, as there is often an informal power structure in the organization in which those not with administrative control may exert strong influence over decision makers and, in essence, have more power than is evident by their position.
Bullying is a very difficult issue to tackle, as the bully often displays different characteristics when communicating with different people. People may find it very difficult to believe that this “reasonable person” they know could be a bully. As a result, the victim of the bully is often seen as the problem. There is often reluctance on the part of the organization to recognize bullying and it tries to approach it as inter-personal conflict that can be resolved with mediation. This complicates the approach to dealing with a bully.
Firmly address the situation – let the bully know that their behaviour is unacceptable, and ask them to stop. Try to avoid becoming emotional – stick to the facts. If your organization has policies that deal with harassment and bullying, let the perpetrator know that you view their actions in the context of the policy.
Document all incidents; keep a journal, identifying the date, times, names, witnesses, and the nature of the interaction, as well as the outcome of the incident. Keep any emails or letters received from the person. Keep your journal away from the workplace or under lock and key.
Seek the assistance of your Employee Assistance Program provider or your physician for support.
Report the bullying to the person designated in your organization to deal with issues of harassment. If there is no one designated or your organization does not have a policy, report to your supervisor or manager or to your union or Human Resources representative.
The Public Services Health & Safety Association Handbook (see footnote below) suggests that you train yourself to listen carefully to the bully and, when you hear words of attack, excuse yourself with one of these responses and walk away:
Excuse me; I have a meeting to go to.
I have something I have to attend to. I’ll get back with you later.
Pardon me, I was just heading out. Can we talk tomorrow?
Let’s talk later. I have something that can’t wait.
Do you think so? Maybe you’re right.
I don’t agree, but I’m sure we can talk about this another time.
Being bullied can lower your self-esteem and make you feel isolated. It is important to ensure you have support from family and friends when you are dealing with a workplace bully. Co-workers may be reluctant to make a complaint with you, as they may worry about repercussions. However, if the bullying behaviour affects several workers, you may have greater strength in numbers when reporting the behaviour. Remember that by reporting and dealing with a situation of bullying, you are likely also helping co-workers, who may be subsequent victims.
Your mental health and well-being are critical to your future. In some cases, if all attempts to eliminate the bullying behaviour have failed, it may be preferable to transfer to another department or even seek a new employer.
Gene Shemetak is the Occupational Health and Safety Consultant to the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS). This article was originally published in the Canadian Journal of Medical Laboratory Science, Vol. 74, no. 3 (2012). It has been republished here with permission.
 Public Services Health & Safety Association; Bullying in the Workplace: A Handbook for the Workplace; 2010; ISBN 978-1-926937-07-6