Is Workplace Bullying a Reflection of Your Leadership?

Leaders need to step up and take charge to nip bullying in the bud

Is Workplace Bullying a Reflection of Your Leadership?
Is Workplace Bullying a Reflection of Your Leadership?

Bullying is a topic often discussed in educational institutions, but not given as much importance in workplace settings. Let us first understand what bullying is and how it shows up in the workplace.

Bullying is any behaviour that is harmful and is repeatedly targeted at a particular person or group, with no specific cause, and/or causes a risk to the health and safety of the one being bullied.

A survey conducted by revealed that almost 55% of Indian workers are bullied at their workplace. In these settings, bullying can take various forms:  spreading gossip or rumours about someone; insulting them, especially in front of others; denying multiple requests for time off without reason; giving an unfair amount of work; giving misguided information; and purposely excluding someone from opportunities or spaces.

Workplace bullying has a severe impact on the morale and mental health of the victim, and can have larger implications for the organisation too.

This brings us to the question - if bullying is happening in the workplace, does it reflect on one’s leadership?

The direct answer is that yes, it does. However, to understand it, we look at a few different points.

1. When the conflict happens between individuals or a small group of employees

Bullying happens in many forms and can sometimes be subtle. People may believe that they are ‘having fun’, and not realise that something is going overboard - like in the case of college ragging.

An overly casual or un-monitored culture at work can be equally problematic. This can normalise overstepping boundaries or unconditional loyalty – and can make identifying and reporting bullying difficult.

While these might be isolated cases reflecting individual dynamics, the company leadership is accountable too. First, an organisation is responsible for its culture. It is up to those running and leading the firm to create a positive and safe atmosphere where people can comfortably work with each other. Further, in case of difficulties, employees should be able to speak to their managers to address their concerns.

The causes that lead to such distressing behaviours at work, and what is eventually done about it, speak volumes of how invested the organisation’s leaders are in their employees’ wellbeing.

2. When the management is the bully

Things like regularly overworking employees, not giving employees their rightful time off, or meting out harsh criticism or insults for ‘improvement’ is considered normal in some organisations. It may not even be questioned by many workers, as this may be the established culture of the organisation. This is a direct reflection of the leaders, as they could be taking advantage of their position to target people and not seeking to make changes for their benefit.

3. The cost of bullying

Bullying can impact the reputation of companies. According to Bill Sutton of Stanford University, the productivity of a workplace can decline by 40% due to bullying. In one study, it was suggested that 30% of employees who are bullied have higher chances of leaving their job. Potential legal claims, distrust among employees, added expense of training people due to low retention, are just some of the issues in such workplaces.

When a situation of bulling is reported, how the organisation handles it is also an important reflection of whether the company values their own reputation or their employees’ welfare.

4. In this light, what is the job of the leadership?

It is crucial that organisations understand their role in employee wellbeing. They must make changes that directly benefit employees, and not merely focus on PR exercises to show leadership or the institution in good light.

As a leader, your job is to create an environment that prioritises the interests of employees and enables them to work better, and more satisfactorily. This means understanding the widespread nature of bullying, and taking preventive and remedial steps towards it.

Prevention of bullying needs to be proactive and reiterated regularly – by setting strong policies, educating workers on bullying and its impact, and setting up redressal committees. Building a supportive work environment must be a long-term focus.

Remedial steps for bullying may only be needed when a situation has been reported. A few examples of such steps are - having separate, unbiased discussions with all parties involved, directing the targeted person to mental health support or offering adequate compensation. The most important thing is to believe someone who speaks up about bullying, and follow a fair procedure to redress their complaint in a timebound manner. This will create a strong deterrent for anyone else who may indulge in similar behaviours.

Leaders must understand and accept that bullying is a systemic problem, and that an employee’s wellbeing is the company’s responsibility. By stepping up and taking charge, leaders can help create a happier work environment.

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