Thursday, May 3, 2012


Earlier this week, it was reported that an Australian executive is suing her former employer for £9.2 million of damages, alleging that her employer engaged in ''bullying, suppression and victimisation'' which she said prevented her from doing her job.

Along with damages for the impact on her reputation and future earnings, the executive was also seeking orders 'designed to ensure that the dysfunctional culture of bullying, suppression and victimisation at her employer is reformed''.

Unfortunately, such a case is no longer an isolated incident, with an increasing number of surveys on workplace bullying indicating shown that many organisations are complacent when it comes to dealing with this growing problem.

According to those working in the human resource field, workplace bullying is generally defined as vindictive, cruel, malicious or humiliating behaviour towards an individual or even a group of employees.

Whilst this can occur between workers, it also now increasingly involves the abuse of authority by management, reflecting an autocratic style that is increasingly in conflict with the work practices of some of the best organisations in the World.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that there is usually an absence of any formal policies and procedures to deal with bullying and, worse of all, senior managers often ignore it. This is mainly because there is a stereotype approach as to what bullying constitutes, despite the fact that it can take many different forms and is not necessarily a case of one size fits all i.e. it can include unwarranted or invalid criticism, fault-finding, exclusion, isolation, being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring and having verbal or written warnings imposed for no reason.

The problem has been further complicated in recent years by the emergence of online social networking, which means that bullying is moving from the office onto the internet with serious consequences for organisational policies to deal with this abuse. In fact, a recent survey estimated that as many as one in five workers had been bullied by email and one in 16 said that they had been bullied by text message

With the situation becoming increasingly complex, there have been calls, especially from trade unions, to make workplace victimisation unlawful.

However, there would be no need for legislative action if those with strategic responsibility for organisations, such as board of directors or trustees, were made more aware that the main consequence of a bullying culture an inevitable decrease in productivity and a direct impact on the ‘bottom-line’. More worryingly for the future of the organisation, good employees will eventually leave whilst those involved in bullying remain.

This will inevitably start the process again as those managers who are the perpetrators of bullying are often motivated by their own personal issues such as lack of self-confidence and envy towards other people's abilities, success and popularity. As a result, they constantly deny responsibility for their behaviour and its consequences and are unable or unwilling to recognise the effect of their behaviour on others. If nothing is done to address this problem, then it will have a direct effect on the performance of the organisation, negatively affecting its culture and productivity and may, in extreme instances, affect its reputation, especially if legal action is taken.

The problem is that when such bullying becomes institutionalised and results in situation where staff are constantly overloaded, where there is a blame culture amongst colleagues, and where aggressive behaviour is tolerated, there will be serious consequences for the future of that organisation. Indeed, there are an increasing number of research studies, which show that rather than increasing performance, overloaded and bullied employees tend to work for organisations where the management style is bureaucratic and reactive, and, inevitably, its performance is in decline.

Not surprisingly, such behaviour hits the bottom line of the business with a recent survey by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimated that 10.8 million working days a year are lost to stress, anxiety and depression at a cost of billions of pounds to UK industry annually.

In contrast, those workers who go the extra mile for their employer, who feel recognised and supported and look forward to going to their place of work every day, are those employed for growing, dynamic companies where the management style is empowering and successful.

So perhaps the simple message for all organisations is that its employees are its biggest assets, something that some still fail to grasp even in the 21st Century.

More specifically, if these assets are affected by issues such as workplace bullying, the result could be lower profits, demotivated employees and, in extreme cases such as the one currently being fought in Australia, unnecessary court actions that will cost millions of pounds in damages and much more in reputational costs for both the organisation and the managers involved.