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Workplace bullying deconstructed

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As lawyers who conduct both workplace investigations and workplace assessments, we often hear from employees who have been the target of workplace bullying.

Workplace Bullying in Canada – the Statistics

The statistics on workplace bullying in Canada are grim:1

    • A shocking 55% of surveyed Canadians report being the target of workplace bullying.
    • 50% of targeted employees suffer from mental health-related issues.
    • Employees coping with bullying and a toxic work environment on average take twice as much sick time as other employees.
    • 80% of all employees in a toxic workplace, not just those who are targeted, spend a significant amount of time and energy focused on issues related to the work environment. This takes time away from their work.
    • 48% of targeted employees reduce their efforts at work.
    • Statistics Canada estimates that the cost of employee absence due to bullying and harassment is roughly $19 billion per year.

Although many employers will be familiar with statistics like these, one study found that only one third of Canadian employers took any action to stop bullying in their workplace.2 Even more depressingly, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “How Bullying Manifests at Work – and How to Stop It,” suggests that even when employers do take action to address workplace bullying, the interventions are rarely effective. This is because employers often act based on myths about workplace bullying and use traditional methods of intervention that are ineffective.3

Myths about Workplace Bullying

According to the authors of the Harvard Business Review article, a common myth about workplace bullying is that it is not harmful and that it might even encourage higher levels of performance and therefore, intervention is unnecessary. This myth might explain, in part, the fact that two-thirds of Canadian employers take no action to address workplace bullying. In debunking this myth, the authors explain:

A common assumption is that bullies are often star performers, and that high performance justifies bad behavior. However, the actual star performers are more likely to be targets than bullies. Bullies are usually mediocre performers who may appear to be stars, while in fact they often take credit for the work of others. Moreover, bullies are not motivated by organizational goals. They’re driven by self-interest, often at the expense of organisations. Research indicates that bullies often envy and covertly victimize organization-focused high performers — those who are particularly capable, caring, and conscientious. Not only are bullies not the stars, but one toxic employee negates the gains of the performance of two superstars and likely creates additional costs.

Ineffective Interventions

The authors go on to suggest that traditional methods of intervention are often ineffective, for several reasons:4

    1. Employers frequently use a reactive approach to address workplace bullying. The problem with this approach is that the harm has already occurred. Focusing on the prevention of workplace bullying avoids both the individual and organizational costs.
    2. Employers often place the burden of proving workplace bullying on the target. This approach overlooks the fact that bullying is trauma. Asking an employee who is experiencing trauma to describe that trauma while it is ongoing, and to maintain their productivity in the workplace, is an impossible situation.
    3. Interventions often focus on “fixing” the personality characteristics of the parties — both the bully/bullies and the target. This approach ignores the reality that many personality characteristics are stable and therefore cannot be “fixed.”
    4. Employers tend to focus on two types of bullying: (1) overt bullying, such as the silencing or humiliating of a target; and (2) hostile bullying, such as angry and/or aggressive conduct, and harassment. However, this means that other forms of bullying are often overlooked. The authors describe two additional forms of bullying: (3) covert bullying, such as gaslighting and deliberately withholding information from a targeted employee, and (4) instrumental bullying, which includes behaviours such as spreading rumours and lies to remove a target who is perceived as a threat because of their talent, or to claim the targets resources, such as funding or an office space.

A Systemic Approach

The authors recommend that employers take a systemic approach to workplace interventions. In recommending this approach, they adopt a philosophy of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a well-known management consultant, who believed that “94% of all workplace issues are systemic, and only 6% are attributable to individual-level, idiosyncratic factors.”5 The authors suggest that to effectively intervene in workplace bullying, the right systems must be established and continuously improved. These systems should include the following elements:

    1. Address hostile bullying

Screen for employees with negative characteristics related to poor performance, such as arrogance in leadership roles; conduct training on topics such as respect in the workplace and bystander intervention; and eliminate management styles that create fear.

    1. Address instrumental, indirect, and covert bullying

Ensure transparent, fair, equitable, and legitimate ways for employees to obtain rewards. Promotions, resource allocation, and other crucial decisions should be made based on transparent and accurately measured performance outcomes.

    1. Prevent upward bullying

Create clear roles and behavioural expectations for employees, and train managers to have the confidence and skills to addresses bullying behaviour head-on and early.

    1. Prevent horizontal and mixed direction bullying (bullying where an individual bullies a peer or where a group bullies in multiple directions)

Avoid creating an environment where there is unhealthy internal competition, distribute resources in a fair and transparent way, balance team and individual rewards, and develop mechanisms for constructively addressing workplace conflict which is inevitable.

    1. Prevent downward bullying

Pay close attention to subtle signs. 360-degree evaluations and workplace assessments are helpful tools. Workplace assessments must be thoughtfully designed and carefully reviewed. Employees who are bullied may fear that sharing their reality directly with their employer – even in an anonymous survey – may lead to reprisal, including loss of employment. Reviewers may need to “read between the lines” and be alert to “red flags.” The analysis of the information gathered during a workplace assessment by an experienced reviewer can reveal greater context and underlying workplace issues by team, department, or for an entire organization. This information will help employers to identify any fault lines that need to be addressed.

1 “1 in 2 Canadians have experienced bullying in the workplace” (November 19, 2018), online: The Forum Poll online:   https://poll.forumresearch.com/m/post/2900/bullying-2018/;  and “Relevant Statistics — Bullying/Harassment and Psychological Health & Safety”(2020), online: Workplace Fairness West Institute online:  https://workplacefairnesswest.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Relevant-Statistics.pdf.

2 The Forum Poll, note 1.

3 Ludmila N. Praslova, Ron Carucci, and Caroline Stokes, “How Bullying Manifests at Work – and How to Stop It” (November 4, 2022), online: Harvard Business Review online:  https://hbr.org/2022/11/how-bullying-manifests-at-work-and-how-to-stop-it.

4 Note 3.

5 Note 3.

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