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The Negative World of Workplace Bullying - Stopping the Toxicity

July 23, 2010

In my experience as a mediator, the main difference between school yard bullying and workplace bullying is the height and age of the players. Other than that they are scarily similar and very familiar to many of us who have witnessed or lived one or both scenarios.

In a kid’s world:
It’s early September and you are starting a new grade in a new school. You are looking forward to making new friends, having fun, playing sports and maybe even learning something. You head off on the first day with your new clothes, new pencil case, new notebooks and a backpack full of dreams of how wonderful it will be. But somehow, it doesn’t work out that way. You find yourself standing alone on the playground with other kids taunting you about your appearance, your intelligence or the fact that you aren’t good at soccer. It gets worse until you are afraid to open your mouth in class because when you do the nasty comments, laughter and teasing are unbearable. The teacher doesn’t seem to notice… and you feel very alone.

In the adult world:
You made it through the interview process and you’ve just landed your dream job. You show up on the first day with a new outfit, a route map to get you there on time, some money in your pocket for lunch and great expectations that you will be able to make a solid contribution to the organization, the clients and your career. You smile at everyone, talk to people, offer suggestions and generally try to make yourself useful and build relationships. But somehow it just doesn’t seem to be working. You find yourself eating alone in the lunch room, when you say hello to people the greetings are not returned and your ideas and suggestions are ignored or put down. After a while you hesitate to open your mouth or offer any input to the group as it seems to just result in more negativity. The manager doesn’t seem to notice and you hesitate to bring it up as you’re not sure how they will react and it might make things worse….and you feel very alone.

Two different scenarios that share a lot of similarities. Typically they both result in exclusion, isolation, hurt and a sense of hopelessness on the part of those living the experience. We have seen situations in both the child and the adult world where the long term implications can lead to drastic results. Sometimes the negativity goes internal and the mental anguish created results in depression, physical ailments or suicide. Other times the negativity caused by that internal mental anguish leads to an external loss of control and workplace violence against others such as the shootings at Columbine High School or OC Transpo. In either case the costs are enormous and need to be addressed long before it gets to that point.

The costs of bullying are huge and varied. As an example there may be:
- Enormous levels of hurt and loss of self esteem
- Loss of the sense of personal safety which ranks as a primary concern on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- Increased turnover rates as people choose to leave and hope to find another job where they feel safe.
- Loss of productivity as bullying creates a huge level of distraction for those involved that takes precedence over getting the job done.
- Increased costs to health care, mental health services, EAP programs and other resources
- Distraction from our ability to function effectively – as a parent, as a partner, as a community member, as a citizen.

How can we bully-proof our workplaces?
There are many factors that contribute to workplace bullying and in our experience every situation is different, however there are some common actions that can reduce the likelihood of bullying being an issue:
- Setting standards of behaviour and ensuring they are followed
- Creating healthy organizational cultures where this type of behaviour is not condoned
- Leadership actively modeling positive working relationships and respect.
- Managers and leaders actively monitoring the workplace and being aware of situations where bullying may be happening particularly with new employees.
- Recognizing the warning signs of a ‘Culture of Condoning’ that may be silently supporting and rewarding inappropriate actions or behaviour
o Inappropriate jokes particularly at the expense of particular groups or individuals
o Apologies that seem insincere or that are offered repeatedly – “Sorry - I probably shouldn’t tell this joke” or “Oops – I need to watch out for the Harassment Police!” or similar off the cuff remarks
o People who seem overly nervous, quiet or reluctant to render an opinion or take a stand
o Comments such as “Oh that’s just the way ___ is – s/he doesn’t mean anything by it” or “You don’t want to bring that up – the last thing you want to do is get ___ gunning for you…”
- Taking constructive action to support the victims and hold the perpetrators to account.
- Recognizing the type of behaviour and actions that are rewarded in our workplaces – do they support healthy workplaces or are we inadvertently rewarding behaviour that is creating problems.
- Exercising solid leadership that includes professionalism and acceptance of differences.
- Creating an inclusive and positive working environment where issues are raised, discussed constructively and problems addressed.
- Having appropriate policies and recourse mechanisms in place that will ensure that people have effective ways to address problems when they do arise.
- Listening when someone says they need to talk and creating an environment where people feel it’s safe to talk without fear of repercussions.

This becomes even more challenging if the bully is also the boss or in some other senior position as they may present one face to their peers and superiors and a totally different face to their subordinates.

The key to prevention and addressing the situation is a recognition that this can and does happen – even in the best of situations. And when it does show signs of happening, it will not get better by ignoring, denying or minimizing it. It’s up to us to determine what our children learn about how to interact with others… otherwise the school yard bullies of today will be the workplace bullies of tomorrow.

For more information contact:
Ruth Sirman
President and Senior Mediator
CanMediate International
Phone: 613-256-3852
Cell: 613-298-8105

Click here to view our Sources Listing:

Ruth Sirman, CanMediate International Inc.


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