Corporate life

Tackle the bullying by the horns


Employers and HR managers are often required to settle fights and disputes among employees. But what happens when inter-office intentions are less than honourable?

While bullying is often associated with children and school grounds, the phenomenon is very much alive in the office and among adults – often with severe consequences for both victim and organisation. Luckily there are ways employers can prevent such situations.

There is nothing more daunting for any working person than to be emotionally, sexually, verbally and physically harassed, discriminated against, manipulated and bullied by a colleague or even a superior.

From subtle, consistent name calling and explicit discrimination based on gender, race, religion or background to sexual, emotional and physical intimidation – office harassment has many different faces.

Anyone can be a victim, whether you are a man or a woman, old or young, a senior or junior employee. The same can be said about the perpetrators.

It is uncertain how many South Africans are suffering from workplace harassment, simply because recent figures are unavailable. However, an internet survey in 2000 by Work Dignity Institute (WDI) in Roodepoort suggests that 77.8% of South African employees felt bullied in the workplace in that particular year.

This is much higher than, for instance, the United States and the United Kingdom where the prevalence is estimated at between 10% and 30%. According to WDI founder, Susan Steinman, employers have a fundamental role to play in preventing and stopping bullying and harassment on the work floor.

“One of the best deterrents is to lead by example, and to have consistent policies in place, with consequences for those who bully and harass others. Dignity and respect should prevail and adverse behaviour, whether it is verbal abuse or more underhanded forms for bullying and harassment, should not be tolerated.

“If everyone is aware of these rules and if consequences are implemented consequently, chances of bullying are much smaller," Steinman adds. 

Karen van der Linden, a victim of office bullying herself, agrees with Steinman and adds that employers should try to empower their staff to deal with potential bullies. “The biggest problem is that bullies are allowed to operate without the knowledge of others,” she notes.

“Bullies are only bullies because you, the victim, allow them to be bullies. If you are given the tools to deal with them; what to say, how to feel, how not to let them affect you, how to be strong and diplomatic, then they are no longer bullies but pathetic little people who need to feel ‘powerful’ by belittling others. When bullies realise they are not having any effect, they will stop.”

Van Der Linden speaks from her own experience. For nearly seven years, from 1988 to 1995, she was bullied and intimidated by her boss, who headed a local property company. It was her first job.

“My boss was moody and manipulative. She tried to control my personal life by making my life at work as awful as possible,” she recalls.

She prefers not to disclose her real name. “If I for instance had a date with someone she didn’t like, she would insist that I work late. It is just one of many examples. I also really felt inadequate because she told me so. Since you look up to your boss as your mentor and guide, you believe her.”

Freelance journalist, Linda Johnsson, from Cape Town had a similar experience. A couple of years ago she took a job as a senior writer for a large development organisation in the Western Cape.

While she considers herself a strong person who does not take nonsense, she recalls how one of her senior colleagues in third tier management slowly but surely drove her to tears.

“My task was to write whatever the organisation needed to have written. The senior colleague who had to brief me about what had to be done could not articulate what I needed to do. I was always in trouble at the end of the month,” she says.

“Everytime I tried to meet with him with regard to work, he would shut me off. He refused to make eye contact, sent me curt email replies telling me that ‘I should know what I should do’, and was very passive aggressive. It was very unpleasant.”

“At one particular point, I really needed to talk to him because I was on deadline and desperate for a brief. I did not want to be in trouble again. Indicating he was about to physically assault me, which he didn’t, he signalled me to follow him,” Johnsson recalls.

“He marched out of the office looking down, refusing to look me in the eye. I followed him like a sheep. On the balcony, I got an aggressive tirade over me. He said all sorts of things. I remember breaking down in the office, which is not my style. I used to be a parliamentary reporter, dealing with politicians. I am not someone who cries on another co-worker’s desk.”

Johnsson was not the only one at the office who suffered. “A co-worker had similar issues with him. Her situation was much worse. She had blow-ups and screaming in the office, and was openly humiliated by him.” She eventually fell apart. All the way through, he remained the darling of the organisation. It was baffling. “After the balcony scene, I asked for a meeting with the director. I did so three times that same week. My boss, also his superior, never came back to me. The situation afterwards was just as bad as always. I got nowhere,” she recalls, adding that in the end it is in the company’s favour to deal with these issues.

“The situation was completely counterproductive. In my opinion, management should be accessible to deal with these types of staff crises,” Steinman says.

“By not getting involved, management is in fact supporting bullies,” she says, noting that there is actually no real limit to how companies should get involved in helping and supporting bullied staff members.

Attempts often fail when top management is involved. “If management is into bullying, it cascades down. Then HR can only do damage control like counselling,” she says.

“This is not a sustainable solution. HR could also assist top management through leadership courses, coaching and so on, but it is a long road. The implications of bullying, harassment and intimidation in the workplace can be very profound for the victim."

According to the WDI these include all sorts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms such as depression, not sleeping well, deteriorating eating habits, anxiety as well as panic attacks.

“I used to cry in the mornings, and vomit from the nerves. I would sit waiting for her at the office and always greet her cheerfully.

“My boss’ response determined how the day went: a cheerful greeting back meant the day would be good. A grunt meant that I would be sworn at about something, anything. I never knew what was going to happen,” Van Der Linden recalls.

Steinman stresses that harassment is not just bad for those who are on the receiving end. “Bullying leads to underperformance within the company. It costs money because it leads to lower productivity and energy going into negativity, instead of stimulating creativity through an environment that is conducive to getting the best out of people.”

Johnsson left the development organisation after a year and a half: “I often wonder how that man is doing, and whether he is bullying anyone else at the office. You do wonder at what stage people are going to get their dues.”

Van Der Linden’s situation lasted until her boss left the company some seven years later. “When she resigned, I was offered her job – against her advice. Only then did we discover that I’d been doing her work all along, at a fraction of the salary,” she notes.

She learned some valuable lessons from her bully and implemented these when she took over her reigns.

“I held monthly, informal meetings with snacks and a paperweight. The person holding the paperweight could say what they needed to, politely and objectively.

“If a problem was raised, I wanted a solution. This allowed all of us to work at issues as a team. But they were all equals. I welcomed comments. Not all managers allow that.” 


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Issue 83


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