Workplace bullying: How to identify and prevent it

By Robert Half 9 November 2019

Research from mental health charity, beyondblue reveals that almost 50% of Australian workers will experience some form of workplace bullying during their careers.

According to a Safe Work Australia report, 9.4% of Australian workers had been bullied at work during the six month period prior to their report.

The Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 defines workplace bullying as:
“the repeated unreasonable behaviour by an individual towards a worker which creates a risk to health and safety” and explains that “behaviour can range from obvious verbal or physical assault to subtle psychological abuse”.

Any form of workplace bullying can have drastic effects on your team, your reputation and your business's bottom line. Other consequences include:

If that’s not enough, research suggests that bullying costs Australian businesses between $6 to $36 billion a year.

Bullying is a serious issue and as a manager, it’s something you cannot afford to ignore. This article shares ways to identify whether bullying is taking place, as well as strategies to manage existing situations and ways to prevent it from happening in the future.

How can you identify workplace bullying?

To help put an end to workplace bullying in your company, you first need to understand the behaviours associated with it. These can include belittling someone, undermining a person's work, spreading rumours and playing practical jokes at another person’s expense.

It can include withholding of information, ignoring and socially isolating members of the team, putting unreasonable pressure on others, setting unreasonable work demands, as well as work sabotage. It could even escalate to verbal abuse and threats of physical violence.

As well as looking out for signs of these behaviours, watch for noticeable changes in the workplace.

For example, are there any sudden drops in performance, patterns of absenteeism, changes in workplace relationships, an increase in unhappy customers, higher levels of staff turnover or general bad attitudes? These could be signs that someone is being bullied.

Keep in mind that workplace bullying isn’t just through face-to-face interactions. It can be via emails, text messages, instant messages, social media and may even be continued outside of the workplace.

Bullying can be one-to-one, one-to-many or even many-to-many. It can happen amongst colleagues of the same level, from managers to workers and even from workers to managers.

7 ways to manage and prevent workplace bullying

To minimise bullying in the workplace, it’s important to be proactive. This will ensure signs of workplace bullying are identified early. This can help minimise the level of damage done to working relationships and the business itself.

There is no one simple solution that will end bullying, but implementing a collection of strategies is an effective approach. Here are seven strategies you should consider:

1. Understand the legalities of workplace bullying

As a business, you have a legal obligation to address bullying quickly and effectively, for the safety of your employees. To ensure you stay on the right side of the legislation, read Safe Work Australia’s detailed “Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying”.

2. Implement clear policies and processes

Put clear and transparent policies and processes in place. Every complaint should be logged and investigated. Make sure actions are taken to protect the complainant and the bully faces real consequences. These policies and processes should be made easily available for employees to refer to.

3. Create a bully-free culture

Bullying can occur because of cultural, organisational and structural issues in your business. Eradicate this by working towards creating a positive company culture, where employees respect each other. Provide training on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Explain what workplace bullying is, how it is being addressed in your company and how conflict can be effectively managed. Guides should be made readily available to employees for future reference.

4. Communicate with employees regularly

Whilst you might already have an open door policy, this relies on employees coming to you. Initiate conversations with employees to understand their job satisfaction and if there are any issues you should be aware of. Get feedback from managers too and hold exit interviews when workers leave, to gain additional insight.

5. Set up peer support networks

Creating a peer support network will give employees someone to talk to that they can trust (who isn’t their boss). This may lead to issues being reported sooner and before they escalate. It may even help to prevent people from becoming bullies. People may bully others as a result of severe work stress, frustration in their role and challenging management styles. Having someone to talk to can help defuse the situation before it becomes a bigger issue.

6. Keeping an eye out

Most bullying is subtle and secretive, so by the time bullying makes itself visible, you may already have lost good people and seen your team’s morale affected. A good manager actively looks for bullying and intervenes early to fix it.

7. Provide leadership training

Without proper management, conflicts and disagreements can rapidly escalate. Leadership training should be provided to ensure managers can step up and manage issues effectively, as soon as they arise.

Ensure you have a plan in place to manage and resolve workplace bullying. Your team has the right to a safe work environment, and it’s your job to make that happen.

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