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What’s Working? How to Tackle Bullying in the Workplace

The modern workplace can be tough enough to negotiate at the best of times. So, if someone is faced with a colleague who is deliberately trying to make things difficult, it’s vital that the right culture and structure is in place to support them, alleviate stress and resolve matters.

While we all hope to leave the archetypal “bully” behind in the playground or classroom, this kind of behaviour can unfortunately rear its head well into adulthood.

As an experienced professional and personal development coach, Vhi expert Mary Curran sees childhood patterns repeating in offices across the country.

“Does your childhood affect your behaviour as an adult?” she says. “The reality is, yes. There are a lot of different roles kids play. That includes ‘the good child’ who is invisible in the group because they won’t speak up. That carries over into work: ‘I did something wrong, it’s always my fault’… This can encourage bullying.”

How widespread an issue is it for companies here? In 2014, Ireland was named the seventh worst European country for workplace bullying. A 2018 study, meanwhile, found 2 in 5 Irish employees experienced it.

While the Employment Equality Act (1998) brought in anti-bullying policies, Curran says the big challenge for managers is “identifying what’s going on and creating an environment where we can deal adequately with inappropriate behaviour. That doesn’t always happen…”

So, what are the proven remedies and what needs to be done? Curran assesses the impact and offers some potential solutions…

Is there a clear way to define “bullying” in the workplace?

It can be tough to identify. The “demon” type of bully is someone that you will hear in the office shouting at another person. It’s recognisable very quickly. Unfortunately, the majority of bullies are insidious. They are “the underminer”, belittling everything you do. So, they’ll ask you to deliver work by Wednesday and when Wednesday comes around, they’ll say “I didn’t ask for that.”

They’ll play games and really, really affect a person’s confidence. There are actually 14 different ways to identify it [including manipulation, isolation, two-facedness and taking up your space] but it cannot always be spotted.

What are some common signs to look for?

One of the biggest ones is where people keep changing the goalposts.

Then “question abort” is a mind game where they ask you questions at a meeting and before you get to answer, they cut you off with another. The person delivering the speech loses their line of thought and looks silly. The “yo-yo effect” is where they build you up and then put you down. They do this little by little. Remember, tone of voice can be bullying. Silence can be bullying, where someone leaves you out of the conversation at the lunchtime break.

When faced with a sensitive issue, how should managers proceed?

Follow the policy on workplace bullying. That is the quickest way of dealing it.

But also working with the person. Asking them to record what’s happening; detail what’s gone on. Bringing the policy to the employee’s attention.

How important is anonymity and confidentially in practice?

Everything is confidential. Reports are usually treated seriously from the beginning. Sometimes just a conversation, having that chat with the HR person, will help. But if it’s a pattern and it’s happening a lot, you have to do more than just listen to the employee – you would have to take action.

I do think, nowadays, all the work we do bringing in mindfulness and resilience training is helping the staff, definitely. 

How can coaching help employees deal with potential issues?

By building their confidence, becoming assertive, they can then deal with the bully… The funny thing is, when you stand up to a bully, 99% of the time they back down.

What I’ve found works very well is roleplay. I would be the worst bully that they’d experienced – the person they’re dreading – and they would deal with me. Then I would reverse roles and I would deal completely differently with the bully.

Then they would start to realise: ‘I cannot change the bully, I can only change myself and how I deal with them.’ The golden rule is that you never meet aggression with aggression.

How can bullying impact a person’s wellbeing and overall quality of life?

A lot of people suffer very badly on Sunday nights. They’re dreading the week ahead. Some of them have panic attacks. Depression. Doubt comes in that they’re not good enough… More than one person I’ve coached was on sick leave due to the stress.

Can particular workplace cultures enable bullying?

They do sometimes create it in certain companies. I’ve seen it happen, where people in higher positions set two teams up against each other to achieve the best results at the end of each months. That ended up with people being bullied on one of the teams…

Remember, bullying affects the organisation in a very bad way as well. It changes the internal culture and you have other employees then watching out for themselves and thinking, ‘I’ll be the next target’. It changes the atmosphere of trust in the workplace.

What’s one suggestion you’d have to improve the Irish workplace?

The Irish culture’s improving a lot but it still has a long way to go… The Irish sometimes push things under the carpet. We collude rather than say things as they are. If there’s bullying happening, directly deal with it rather than ignore it or talk around it.

Looking for more information on how Vhi can help you support your employees? Simply speak to your account manager or visit