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Preventing Workplace Bullying

Preventing Workplace Bullying

What can an employer do?

(Source: Adapted from: “Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide”. CCOHS, 2001)

The most important component of any workplace prevention program is management commitment. Management commitment is best communicated in a written policy. Since bullying is a form of violence in the workplace, employers may wish to write a comprehensive policy that covers a range of incidents (from bullying and harassment to physical violence).

  1. A workplace violence prevention program must:
  2. Apply to management, employee’s, clients, independent contractors and anyone who has a relationship with your company.
  3. Assure no reprisals will be made against reporting employees.
  4. Be developed by management and employee representatives.
  5. Define what you mean by workplace bullying (or harassment or violence) in precise, concrete language.
  6. Describe how information about potential risks of bullying/violence will be communicated to employees.
  7. Encourage reporting of all incidents of bullying or other forms of workplace violence.
  8. Make a commitment to fulfill the prevention training needs of different levels of personnel within the organization.
  9. Make a commitment to monitor and regularly review the policy.
  10. Make a commitment to provide support services to victims.
  11. Offer a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to allow employees with personal problems to seek help.
  12. Outline the confidential process by which employees can report incidents and to whom.
  13. Outline the process by which preventive measures will be developed.
  14. Outline the procedures for investigating and resolving complaints.
  15. Precisely state the consequences of making threats or committing acts.
  16. Provide clear examples of unacceptable behaviour and working conditions.
  17. State in clear terms your organization’s view toward workplace bullying and its commitment to the prevention of workplace bullying.
  18. State applicable regulatory requirements, where possible.


Communication objectives in your organization include goals such as problem solving, innovation, feedback to employees and from customers, training, and meeting customer needs.

As a result of requiring that your employees communicate with each other to meet these goals, you also have policies in place. You have corporate policies about how to communicate, how to use email and the internet, you have rules, social norms, and an organizational flow chart. So, your organization as objectives for communication among employees and managers, policies in place to make sure those objectives are met, and then you have communication activities. They include things like staff meetings, employee evaluations, employee surveys, customer surveys, emails, IT, intranet, and gossip.

Because communication is imperative to your meeting goals, it necessarily follows that strong interpersonal relationships are also imperative to your ability to meet those goals. In other words, the effectiveness of internal communication and its ability to facilitate meeting goals is mediated by interpersonal relationships

When relationships are on fire, however, or not working properly, organizational goals also go down in flames and up in smoke. It would be like forcing your organizational goal to jump through a ring of fire. And why would you do that? In sum, bullying causes everyone, not just the targets of the behaviour, to lose motivation, lose loyalty to managers and the company, stop caring about quality of work, live life in fear, become anxious and even depressed, and stop coming to work. As a result your business processes will suffer and your bottom line will too.

In other words, relationships among employees are the key to your success. Without them, people aren’t talking to each other, being innovative, making the right decisions, or focused on the right activities to maximize their productivity.



Workplace bullies create a tremendous liability for the employer by causing stress-related health and safety problems, and driving good employees out of the organization.

The business case for strict anti-bullying policies is compelling. Potential benefits include a more peaceful and productive workplace, with better decision making, less time lost to sick leave or self-defensive paperwork, higher staff retention, and a lower risk of legal action.

Identify bullying in your staff handbook as unacceptable behaviour. Establish proper systems for investigating, recording and dealing with conflict. Investigate complaints quickly, while maintaining discretion and confidentiality and protecting the rights of all individuals involved. It is important to understand fully any incidence of bullying and take the problem seriously at all levels.

Organizations who manage people well outperform those who don’t by 30 to 40 per cent. Development of strong interpersonal skills at all levels is fundamental to good management and a healthy workplace.

There is no place for bullies in a well-run organization.


Workplace Policies Needed

OnApril 6, 1999, a former employee of OC Transpo inOttawawent on a shooting rampage that left four employees dead, then took his own life. The killer had himself been the victim of workplace harassment.

Among the recommendations of a coroner’s inquest was that the definition of workplace violence should include not only physical violence but also psychological violence such as bullying, mobbing, teasing, ridicule or any other act or words that could psychologically hurt or isolate a person in the workplace.

No jurisdiction inCanadarequires employers to have a workplace violence prevention program. For that reason, the OC Transpo jury recommended that federal and provincial governments enact legislation to prevent workplace violence and that employers develop policies to address violence and harassment.


How Bullying Happens

Employers Create the Bullying-Prone Environment and Can Stop It

Employers define all work conditions — employee selection, job descriptions, work assignments, creation of the management group, compensation, leave policies, termination without cause (except in rare circumstances). So, bullying – the system – can only be sustained or eliminated by employers.


Factor 1 – “The Way We Do Things Here” Work Culture Provides Cutthroat Competition Opportunities

Zero-sum competition: Employees are pitted against each other in positions or tasks that allow only one winner to emerge from deliberate battles, creating many losers. Winning is carved out of the hides of the vanquished. It’s a routine way to design work in sales jobs, but unnatural and destructive elsewhere. In government service and financially-strapped industries, budgets are tight and competition for scarce resource dollars ensues. Scarcity generates competition. Simply put, people attack one another to survive at work.


Factor 2 – The Workforce Mix

A small percentage of employees see the Opportunities and are willing to harm others, at least willing to try to harm others if they can get away with it. They are the manipulators. They are Machiavellian, not necessarily disturbed or psychopathic. Machs can and would stop their behaviour if punished for hurting others. However, in most instances, they are encouraged, rather than discouraged. Some people are truly disturbed and have to be detected because their anti-social tendencies are irreversible given an employer’s limited resources.

Ambition in eager job applicants looks good to hiring employers. Unfortunately, the overly-ambitious snakes willing to hurt others are hired. Hiring managers rarely (if ever) talk to the manager applicant’s former subordinates to assess the level of narcissism. Asking only the applicant’s boss for a reference risks getting an incomplete behavioural portrait. Bosses of bullies like them and consider them qualified.


Factor 3 – The Employer’s Response to Bullying

If positive consequences follow bullying, the bullies are emboldened. Promotions and rewards are positive. But, it is also positive if they are not punished. Bullies who bully others with impunity become convinced they can get away with it forever. They will continue until stopped. Even reluctant bullies can be taught to be aggressive over time. We are all susceptible to changing our behaviour in light of work environment conditions.

Stopping bullying requires nothing less than turning the workplace culture upside down. Bullies must experience negative consequences for harming others. Punishment must replace promotions. And only executives and senior management can reverse the historical trend. To stop bullying requires employers to change the routine ways of “doing business” that have propped up bullies for years. Bullies are too expensive to keep, but convincing executives, the bully’s best friends and supporters, is difficult


Employers Don’t Know How to Stop Bullies

Everyone walks on eggshells and is afraid to confront “the golden” bully, the boss’s favourite. HR misapplies the tools of traditional conflict resolution, for example, mediation. Wrong solution for the actual problem. The workplace culture holds no one accountable. Confronting bullies is unthinkable.

Executives and senior managers have been badgered by the bully, too. They are afraid of an emotional confrontation. They loathe conflict and remain paralyzed. By not acting, they tacitly endorse the bully. They fear lawsuits brought by the bully if they dare investigate or punish the bully. There is rarely a basis for such suits. The fear is irrational.


Bullying Is Underreported

Forty percent (40%) of targets never tell their employers…Bullying is erroneously branded as “conflict” or a mere “difference in personality styles.” Both are true, but bullying is also a form of violence. Simple labels minimize its impact on both people and the organization.

Historically, complaints lead to retaliation (revengeful hurting) or reprisal (taking away of rights or status). Knowing this, targets are reluctant to use internal employer processes.


Pro-Active Responses

Businesses that want to minimize the likelihood of bullying can take concrete steps to do so. Here are several measures that may prove helpful:

Send a message that bullying is unacceptable behaviour. This message must come from the top and find its way through the organization. It can include the drafting and implementation of policies related to workplace bullying, offering in-house educational programs and presentations, and using effective “360 feedback” systems to evaluate employees. Moreover, a climate of open, honest, and mutually respectful communication will have the salutary effect of reducing the likelihood of bullying situations.

Empower HR to handle bullying situations fairly and forthrightly. One of the most common remarks from targets of bullying is how “HR was useless” in handling their complaints about bullying and in some cases turned out to be complicit with the bullies. Effective preventive and responsive measures by HR are key components of any anti-bullying initiative.

Dismiss destructive bullies. It may be good for business! Even if an incorrigibly abusive individual happens to be a leading “rainmaker” in attracting business, the increased productivity through better morale and less time lost to the gossip mill may make this a sound decision from a purely cost-benefit standpoint.

HR Magazine has labelled workplace bullying “one of the most insidious and destructive problems” in the workplace. Left to fester it can wreak havoc on employees, employers, and the bottom line alike. Companies that take this problem seriously, however, may find themselves with a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce.


What can I do about bullying in my organization?


The best defence against workplace bullying is a clearly written policy telling everyone associated with your organization—employees, managers, clients and suppliers—that bullying is unacceptable. If you already have an anti-harassment policy, add specific provisions that address bullying. Consult with your management committee or create a committee to deal with bullying.

Make a commitment to circulate post and promote your policy and include it in training and orientation programs at all levels of your organization. An effective policy:

·         Defines bullying in concrete language, including examples of unacceptable behaviour and conditions

·         Ensures that all cases will be treated fairly, all sides will be heard and confidentiality will be maintained by providing an impartial third party to help with the resolution of any situation

·         Ensures that no reprisals will be made against those who report bullying

·         Encourages the reporting of all bullying incidents

·         Is developed by both management and employees

·         Makes a commitment to provide confidential support for targets

·         Makes a commitment to monitor and review the policy regularly.

·         Outlines the procedure for reporting, investigating and resolving all complaints, both formally and informally

·         States clearly that your organization will not tolerate workplace bullying and is committed to preventing it Includes information about the potential risks of bullying behaviour


You can also discourage bullying in your workplace by:

·         Encouraging everyone to treat each other in a respectful and professional manner

·         Treating all complaints seriously and dealing with them promptly and confidentially

·         Training supervisors, managers and staff to deal effectively with complaints and address issues promptly, whether or not a formal complaint has been filed.

·         Working out solutions before situations become serious


When an investigation identifies bullying behaviour, your policy should support those involved by:

Bullying behaviour may be unintentional or it may be the result of organizational issues such as excessive workloads or inadequate support. In these situations, training, mentoring or counselling may help bullies recognize and change their behaviour. Organizational change may also help prevent bullying.

·         Ensuring that the bullying stops

·         Honouring any request by the target for a transfer. However, if the bully and target must be separated and the target hasn’t requested a transfer, ensure that it’s the bully who is transferred or suspended.

·         Offering mediation services and monitoring mediation agreements.

·         Providing access to counselling by trained volunteers or professionals who are familiar with the issues involved in bullying


What are some general tips for victims in the workplace?



  • ENCOURAGE everyone at the workplace to act towards others in a respectful and professional manner.
  • HAVE a workplace policy in place that includes a reporting system.
  • EDUCATE everyone that bullying is a serious matter.
  • TRY TO WORK OUT solutions before the situation gets serious or “out of control”.
  • EDUCATE everyone about what is considered bullying, and whom they can go to for help.
  • TREAT all complaints seriously, and deal with complaints promptly and confidentially.
  • TRAIN supervisors and managers in how to deal with complaints and potential situations. Encourage them to address situations promptly whether or not a formal complaint has been filed.
  • HAVE an impartial third party help with the resolution, if necessary.


  • DO NOT IGNORE any potential problems.
  • DO NOT DELAY resolution. Act as soon as possible.

(Adopted from the “Wellness in the Workplace” Guide. CCOHS, 2002)


Things NOT to do after discovering you are the target of workplace bullying:

·         Do not feel guilty for not confronting your bully in response to the aggression. If you could have, you would have. You are not made that way.

·         Do not limit your decisions to act in ways that sacrifice personal integrity and health just to survive to keep a paycheck. Survival strategies alone create even more serious long-term health and career problems. If the place will not change, plan your escape.

·         Do not wait for the impact of bullying to fade with time. It must be stopped for the effects on you to stop.

·         Do hold the employer accountable for putting you in harm’s way. It is not your personal responsibility as the victim to fix the mess you did not start. Employers control the work environment. When you are injured as a result of exposure to that environment, make the employer own the responsibility to fix it.

·         Do not try to reinvent yourself as a political animal. If you would have been able to be cutthroat, you would have acted accordingly. You do not have to mimic the unethical bully to counter her or his misconduct.

·         Do not trust HR — they work for management and are management. Simple facts.

·         Do not trust EAP counsellors until they have proven to you that your confidential case details will not be reported to management.

·         Do not ask for relief from the bully’s boss. That is the person who loves her or him most. (And if there is no love there, there is fear. The boss fears the bully and cannot stop him or her.)

·         Do not tell your story from a purely emotional injury angle. It scares away potential supporters.

·         Do not share your voluminous documentation with anyone at work. No one cares as much as you do. In the wrong hands, it can be used against you.

·         Do not ask others (HR, union reps, management) to make the bully stop for your sake. They will disappoint you. Rather, you will make the business case and ask them to stop bullying for their own self-interests.

·         Do not agree to be treated by any mental health professionals who cannot believe your experience and want simply to change you so that you will not trigger similar reactions from future bullies.

·         Do not pay a retainer to an attorney until you’ve exhausted cheaper alternatives to get your employer to take your complaint seriously.

·         Do not confide in anyone at work until they have demonstrated (and not just talked about) loyalty to you.

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