At what point does office humour cross the line? It may seem that good natured ribbing is just a way to lighten the mood, but it is far too easy to accidentally become a workplace bully. In reality, as much as we would like to believe that bullying only takes place in the playground, sometimes conflict management is needed in the workplace as well.
Bullying often takes place when there is in imbalance of power in a workplace environment. Bullies often coerce others into doing their work tasks for them or use their positions to make the targeted person look as if they are not capable of doing their job. This style of harassment can involve withholding information the victim needs to complete their tasks, or using scapegoating to blame the victim when deadlines are not met. In addition, bullies often attack their victims with personal insults and intimidation, leaving the victim feeling unsafe at work.
Occasionally, a bully is completely unaware of the impact of their behaviour or is actually attempting to achieve another goal, and the bullying that occurs is an unintended side-effect. More often than not bullying behaviours are considered intentional and the bully really is seeking to harm the victim psychologically, physically, or occupationally. Predatory bullying is the classical example, wherein a victim has done nothing to provoke the bullying attacks, which are used by the bully to demonstrate their power over the victim or others. The most insidious type of bullying occurs when an oversight leaves one person feeling slighted, and both continue to escalate negative and passive-aggressive behaviours towards one another until a conflict management specialist steps in.
Whether it be due to the observation of bullying behaviour or formal complaints made by the victims, it is important to develop a conflict management system that appropriately fits the type of bullying taking place. For instances of unintentional bullying, conflict management should take place in the form of sensitivity training for the bully, and should seek to improve their overall levels of empathy and understanding of the way their actions impact others. When bullying is intentional, conflict management should focus on appropriate methods of resolving workplace conflicts and restoring an appropriate balance of power. It is important that managers understand the difference between strong management tactics and bullying behaviours and their impact on employee morale.
Ideally, management should work to create a corporate culture where all employees feel encouraged to report bullying actions against both themselves and others, and to hold each other accountable for appropriate behaviour. Setting out clear guidelines and policies regarding expected and unacceptable behaviours and the consequences of bullying can go a long way to reducing these types of conflicts before they even begin.
Whether bullying is occurring in a one-on-one fashion or in groups, it is important for conflict management to step in early to avoid the negative impact of workplace bullying. Bullying is a costly problem for any organization, decreasing productivity and leading to victims taking sick days or even leaving their positions to avoid bullies. In scenarios where victims have brought their concerns to managers who failed to address bullying, the organization may even be at risk for litigation. By integrating a strong anti-bullying message into corporate culture, organizations can ensure a happy and productive workforce.
Head of Training and Development