Nip workplace bullying in bud

By Steve Hart

Among the high-profile claims of workplace bullying this year are cases of junior hospital doctors being picked on and stories of bullies driving staff out of the Accident Compensation Corporation.

Despite the publicity workplace bullying generates, it appears to be continuing unchecked in many companies and organisations. So where are the managers - the people that should help ensure staff work in a safe and supportive environment?

Hadyn Olsen is the director of WAVE, Workplaces Against Violence in Employment. He runs the bullying helpline (0800 ZEROBULLY) and says the role of the manager is critical in preventing people being bullied.

"Managers need to understand that bullying is a behavioural problem and not a personal problem ... And a manager's job, especially under health and safety laws, is to really have a focus on good behaviour and prevent harmful behaviour going on."

Olsen says that too many managers just scratch the surface when tackling workplace bullying.

He says it is important that managers listen to their people as they may not have seen the bullying going on.

"Managers need to establish what exactly has happened and how often it has taken place," he says.

"There may be other issues that are affecting the situation - the dynamics within the office. It can be quite hidden from the manager's perspective. So they must carry out an enquiry and encourage their staff to agree to certain acceptable levels of behaviour."

The last thing a manager should do is bring the bully and victim together in a mediation setting unless the manager has training to handle the situation, says Olsen. It is a place where the bully could get the upper hand.

"It can mean that the bully can use that forum to further victimise the complainant. It can be very stressful for the victim to have to walk into a room where their manager and the bully are sitting."

Olsen says when a victim and the bully are brought together, the victim may become emotional in front of their manager and the bully may appear quite reasonable.

"The perception could be that it is the victim that's causing the problem," says Olsen.

"A manager may think the victim is too sensitive or too emotional."

Olsen also cautions companies on the use of anger management courses for people that are deemed to be bullies.

"It can be useful. However, in some cases it only empowers the bully even further because they become more skilled in hiding their behaviour."

Olsen says people will sometimes use bullying tactics when they haven't got any other tools or skills to help them deal with situations that are happening around them. But even people with good management skills can sink to bullying if they develop a targeting mentality towards a victim.

Olsen says there are a lot of reasons why one member of staff can get it in the neck.

"Sometimes people are bullied because there are performance issues, communication issues can be a contributing factor and in some cases the victim is perceived by the bully to be a threat to them," says Olsen.

"A bully may feel insecure or even jealous of their target."

And bullying behaviour, says Olsen, can be a result of something in the bully's past - an unhappy childhood, perhaps.

But sometimes they are just power-hungry. So if a bully rises up the ranks to a position of genuine power do they become more contented?

"No, they get worse," says Olsen. "If a person is predisposed to bullying then the more power they get the worse the bullying becomes."

But there is some good news. "Some companies are clearly focused on the issue and are working to change the culture of their organisations for the better," says Olsen.

But he's not impressed with firms that simply have a top-down attitude that results in a simple company policy covering bullying.

"They have the policy but do little else when claims of bullying are made," he says.

- NZ Herald

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