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Experiencing workplace bullying? Read how to find your voice and fight back

Experiencing workplace bullying? Read how to find your voice and fight back

Credit: Brooke Lark

It started with a seemingly innocuous comment here, a verbal barb there, and slowly gathered momentum until Kelly began struggling to get out of bed to make the daily commute to work. Kelly was the victim of bulling at work, a problem in the workplace that can leave victims feeling powerless, frightened and very alone.

Workplace bullying is a serious issue — the Australian Workplace Barometer report by Safe Work Australia states bullying rates stand at 6.8 per cent, significantly higher than international rates, which show levels of around 1–4 per cent.

The cost of bullying bears a hefty price tag. In real terms, it equates to eroded workplace relationships and a toxic workplace culture, and it can have dire consequences on victims and others who witness the bullying behaviour.

“Listen to your gut,” she says. “Ask yourself, is this reasonable and fair how I am being treated?”

So what is bullying? Direct bullying is often the abuse of power, often with the intent of causing psychological and even physical discomfort and stress. Oscar Yildiz, previously from Bully Zero Australia Foundation, says the most common form of bullying is verbal abuse, or name calling. But bullying is an insidious creature that wears many guises.

“It can be blatant, being falsely accused of mistakes, or being constantly belittled in front of others,” Yildiz says. He is also quick to point out that indirect bullying, through socially ostracising, is also commonplace. “This is the social form of bullying, where staff will turn on others or intentionally ignore someone, with the intention to hurt them,” he said.

Of course, with the advent of social media there’s a new weapon in the bully’s bag of tricks: cyber bullying, which is a potentially insidious and damaging bullying medium as the perpetrator can reach a wide audience in the time it takes to simply press a computer key.

Shades of grey

While it might seem as though bullying is a black-and-white issue, it’s sometimes misunderstood. What bullying isn’t, is missing out on a promotion, differences of opinion, verbal sparring or feedback about work performance.

“Bullying is a catchphrase that gets mixed up with performance or competency; unreasonable behaviour isn’t necessarily bullying behaviour,” explains Yildiz. “As an example, I was contacted recently by a woman who claimed she didn’t get a job and that made her a victim of bullying,” he says. “I said, be honest, put your hand on your heart. Would you say your skills and experience were better than those of the person who got the job? She finally said no.”

“Bullying can cause PTSD or a trauma. In other words, going to work and going to war can be the same for some people.”

It might seem to be a little confusing, so if you aren’t sure whether you are being bullied, bullying expert and psychologist Evelyn Field OAM has one piece of advice. “Listen to your gut,” she says. “Ask yourself, is this reasonable and fair how I am being treated?”

The rise of the bully

Bullying is becoming increasingly prevalent in the workplace. According to Field, a growing number of employers are creating workplace cultures where employees must put up or shut up because they are replaceable. “Employers are becoming more narcissistic. People don’t stay in their jobs for very long and they’re more competitive; the workplace is a dog-eat-dog world,” she says. “There is this underlying message in the workplace: we want to get the numbers, we want to get the job done, we are into profit and not people.”

Being a bullying victim can make you feel worthless, frightened, depressed and physically ill, and Field says that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “I believe the medical profession have not identified the extent of the evidence, which is pretty clear — bullying can cause PTSD or a trauma. In other words, going to work and going to war can be the same for some people.”

How to find your inner roar

Are you or someone you know being bullied at work? Here’s how to fight back.

Determine if it is bullying

Is the behaviour directed at you repeated? In other words, is there a pattern beginning to emerge? Is the behaviour reasonable? Do the incidents create a risk to your personal safety, health and emotional wellbeing? If the answer is yes to any of the above, that may fall under the banner of bullying.

Get educated

Knowledge is power, so read up on your rights. Do what you can to learn about bullying, contact the Fair Work Commission or Safe Work Australia to learn the facts. There are national anti-bullying groups and government bodies that are there to help. At a local level, ask HR or management to see a copy of your workplace policy on bullying. Organisations are supposed to develop and implement a policy, but it doesn’t always happen.

Early intervention is critical

The sooner the situation is dealt with, the greater the likelihood of a favourable outcome. If you feel confident enough, approach the bully and let them know how you feel. Evelyn Field says it’s important to remain calm and present the facts in a logical and unemotional way. “Make good eye contact, stand your ground and use lots of ‘I’ statements,” she says. For example, “I feel intimidated when my co-worker speaks to me in that way,” or, “I didn’t receive a bonus and I would like to know why?”

Be a scribe

Write it down. Every single time. Note down what, when, who and where it happened — every smirk, every eye-roll, every putdown. Take screen shots of technology-delivered bullying so you have a hard copy. Oscar Yildiz says it’s critical to keep track of everything. And don’t embellish — just stick to the facts. “I’ve had people make complaints with no evidence — no emails, texts, no hard copies of anything and no witnesses,” he says. “‘He says, she says’ just doesn’t work.”

Protect your personal information

Bullies are often empowered by gathering personal facts about their victims. Dr Mary Casey from Lifestyle Directions Counselling says it’s important to share information with only those you know you can trust. “Some forms of bullying include finding out the things you like by way of befriending you,” she says. “They love to keep information about you up their sleeves so they can use that as leverage.”

Rally the troops

Build a support network around you at work. You may want to duck for cover in your office at lunchtime, but don’t be coerced into hiding for fear of running into the bully. Ask a co-worker to go out at lunchtime if you can. Bullies can try to alienate their victims from other co-workers — don’t let them. Work to develop relationships with others at work. It’s also important to share your concerns about the bully with someone you know and trust in the workplace.

Don’t enable the bully

Do a little soul searching and ask yourself, could you be contributing to the problem? According to Yildiz, sometimes a bullying victim may inadvertently stoke the fire. “If people are looking for trouble, they are going to find it; they may find themselves in a situation where they’ll be a target,” he says. “We often look at these things and say the bully is the problem, but could you possibly be behaving in a way that’s encouraging that person’s poor behaviour?”

Make your health a priority

Being the brunt of adversarial behaviour over time can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Take care of yourself. Keep physically active, reach out to others for support and make sure you are getting enough snooze-time. See a counsellor to learn coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of the situation and positive ways to deal with the issue.

Don’t ignore it

Don’t push aside the behaviour and say it means nothing; bullying can erode your self-esteem, and you may even begin to doubt yourself. According to Field, it’s important not to run from a bully. “Face them and call their bluff,” she says. For example, if you have been accused of something, ask for more information or for the person to clarify what they mean. “If a supervisor has said you’ve done something wrong, had a complaint from a customer, for example, and you feel you’re being bullied, ask to see concrete proof of that complaint,” she says.

Stay strong

Role play with someone you trust and practise running through the scenarios in which you have been bullied. Work out some assertive responses and ask for honest feedback from those who are in the role-play activity with you. Anybody can be a bully’s target; however, they are more likely to choose victims who are not assertive and won’t fight back. Dr Casey says it’s important to remain watchful. “Be observant and become aware of the tactics bullies use and don’t fall for it,” she says. “Stop being Mr or Miss Nice. Don’t be a people pleaser. Learn to say ‘NO’.”

When is enough enough?

If you have approached your manager or HR person, tried mediation or your concerns have fallen on deaf ears, what next? Dr Mary Casey says sometimes, despite your best efforts, the bully can’t be silenced.

“If you’ve done all you can and nothing has changed, if the stress of being involved with this person is manifesting in illness, or if the boss or manager is a manipulator and the owner or the CEO doesn’t listen or isn’t interested, then it’s time to move on,” she says.

Don’t be a bystander

If you’re being bullied in the workplace, you’d like to think a co-worker would step in and intervene if they witnessed it. You might be surprised to learn that a staggering 70 per cent of people who observe bullying behaviour do nothing. They don’t want to make waves or fear they’ll be next. Oscar Yildiz says bystanders are crucial in stamping out bullying. “It can be stopped in under 10 seconds if the bystander becomes the upstander — in other words, they do something, they become involved,” he says.

So whose problem is bullying?

Bullying is everyone’s problem. It’s the manager who doesn’t have a policy in place, the co-worker who looks away when witnessing bullying behaviour, the funny guy in the office whose lewd jokes are a form of bullying, and the supervisor who constantly belittles the office newbie.

The first step in a workplace to stamp out bullying is to have an office ethos that encourages workers to have a duty of care towards each other. There also needs to be a clear policy in place that can be accessed by all staff and which outlines what is bullying behaviour.

Bullies can try to alienate their victims from other co-workers — don’t let them. Work to develop relationships with others at work.

Evelyn Field says there also needs to be guidelines that indicate what should be done about it. “It’s not about simply having these policies in place, and tick-and-flick training at lunchtime,” she says. “You need to have programs that consistently assess what bullying is, and ongoing education so people know how to deal appropriately with it when there is a bullying situation.”

It’s imperative that the problem is addressed in the right way, she adds. “Adversarial processes are just a continuation of the bullying. Collaborative processes such as restorative justice need to be implemented so the bullying is stopped in reasonable manner and people can continue to work there.”

Cyber bullying lingo defined

Cyber bullying can include flaming, or trolling, which is using abusive language in messages. Harassment is sending unwanted or abusive messages. Cyber bullying can also include impersonating another online and publishing another’s information without their applied consent.

Cyber bullying is a crime, yet did you know it’s only in Victoria that other forms of bullying are considered criminal acts, meaning police can prosecute individuals? Hopefully, other states will follow their lead to make all types of bullying against the law.

What else can you do?

If you’re being bullied in the workplace, contact the Fair Work Commission. From January 1, 2014, a worker (including an employee, contractor, apprentice or volunteer) who is covered by the Fair Work Act 2009 and reasonably believes they have been bullied at work may apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the workplace bullying. More information is available at fwc.gov.au.

If you need support with handling the situation, reach out to others. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue.


Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.