Frequently Asked Questions
A respectful workplace is one that:
- Safeguards the well-being and dignity of all of its staff and clients
- Welcomes diversity and is careful to be inclusive
- Is compassionate
- Values, develops, and rewards its people
- Actively guards against disrespectful or abusive behavior
- Makes it safe to discuss what isn’t working, and focuses on solutions
- Equips its staff to recognize and address conflict, bullying, and harassment at the earliest possible stages
- Is ready to deal in an appropriate and timely manner with inappropriate behavior
- Is prepared to address the aftermath of negative workplace events in a compassionate manner that will help to restore mutual trust and respect
Workplace bullying includes both words and actions that make others feel incompetent, ashamed, worthless, excluded, unwelcome, or unsafe. These uncivil and disrespectful behaviors make people feel bad about themselves. Sometimes they even fear for their safety. Workplace bullying disrupts work, and undermines self-confidence, effectiveness, and credibility. It includes unwanted and unwelcome verbal, psychological, emotional, social, physical, and sexual threats or behavior. It erodes workplace trust and compromises workplace safety.
Quite simply, workplace bullying is bad for business, and bad for people. It can eat away at trust and respect, create suspicion, and undermine creativity. It can lower morale, damage productivity, and drive away clients. It can increase work-related stress, absenteeism, sick leave, long term disability claims, and employee turnover. Recruiting new employees can become a problem. Workplace bullying takes a terrible human toll on those directly or indirectly affected by it: targets, bullies, bystanders, and those called upon to deal with it (either informally or formally). All of them begin to dread coming to work. They may begin to doubt their own skills and abilities. This can affect workforce participation patterns and career development outcomes. The negative impact of workplace bullying can spill over into their personal lives, affecting their health and their social relationships with their families and friends. It can also create financial hardship. Whether you are a manager, a union rep, or an employee, you have a stake in addressing workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying been with us for a long time, but it has often gone unnamed, unrecognized, and unchallenged. As society has become more aware of the dire effects of bullying among children and youth, we have begun to recognize similar dynamics in the adult population, particularly within the employment setting. As a society, we recognize that every employee has the right to work in a respectful environment, and to be kept safe from physical, emotional, and psychological harm. With growing labour shortages, organizations have to compete for skilled workers. To be a workplace of choice, it is increasingly important to ensure a respectful, inclusive, and harassment-free work climate.
Over the past decade, there has been increasing recognition of this problem worldwide.
- 61% of U.S. employees are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace (SHRM, 2018)
- 19% of U.S. employees have experienced abusive conduct in the workplace (SHRM, 2018)
- 19% of U.S. employees have witnessed abusive conduct in the workplace (SHRM, 2018)
- 62% of higher education administrators have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying (Hollis, 2015)
- If bullying causes the employee to leave, this could result in an employee replacement cost equivalent to 1.5x salary of employee
- If employee stays, increased inefficiency can result in $12,630 annually lost per person (Hollis, 2015)
- In 1999, the International Labour Organization (ILO) declared physical and emotional violence to be one of the most serious problems facing the workplace in the new millennium.
- The World Health Organization has named job stress as a world-wide epidemic.
- In 2000, a Canadian poll of labour unions revealed that more than 75% of those surveyed reported incidents of harassment and bullying at work.
- The Canada Safety Council reports that 75% of workplace bullying victims leave their workplace — and that workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment or workplace discrimination.
- On June 1, 2004, Quebec became the first jurisdiction in North America to amend its labor code to protect workers against psychological harassment.
- In 2008, Montreal hosted the sixth international conference on workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying is rampant, and as a society, we are just beginning to recognize it, make it discussable, identify its root causes, and figure out how best to address it.
Hollis, L. P. (2015). Bully University? The Cost of Workplace Bullying and Employee Disengagement in American Higher Education – Leah P. Hollis, 2015. SAGE Open. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244015589997
Workplace bullying can take place in virtually any kind of workplace – large or small, unionized or non-unionized, in the public, private, or not-for-profit sector. Organizations that don’t take active steps to prevent it run a greater risk of running into bullying problems. Bullying is most likely to occur in work settings that experience unrelenting deadline pressure, life-and-death crises, high-stakes decision making, in-fighting, and turf wars.
Tensions that can trigger bullying run particularly high during restructuring, downsizing, changes in staffing levels and reporting relationships, and times of great economic uncertainty.
It can be, but this isn’t always the case. All genders find themselves targeted, and can be bullies.
- 40% of LGBT workers report feeling bullied at work (Psychology Today)
- That’s 11% higher than the national average of all workers combined
- 56% of bullied LGBT workers report being bullied repeatedly, according to a new nationwide survey by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder (Source: (Psychology Today)
For further perspective on the gender dimension of this problem, visit the Website of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women at https://web.archive.org/web/20111025080226/http://www.acswcccf.nb.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=1&lang=en. The Council has undertaken a study of workplace bullying, and has put forward recommendations for action.
Sometimes, contempt for differences is a driving force. Under various human rights and equity legislations, people may be safeguarded by law from discrimination on these protected grounds, depending on the jurisdiction:
- Race, color
- National origin, place of origin
- Ancestry (for example, Aboriginal status, Chinese accent, French mother tongue)
- Marital status
- Sex (pregnancy, for example)
- Sexual orientation
- Physical or mental disability
- Social condition (source of income, level of education or occupation)
- Political belief or activity
Check your local anti-discrimination law for the protected class designations in your area. If these are factors in the workplace situation, then it may be appropriate to contact the office for civil rights, human resources or discrimination-specific support agencies.
There can be as many reasons are there are bullies. But several themes keep cropping up: power and control; jealousy or insecurity; fear; and contempt for difference. Warning signs for each of these may be slightly different, and call for different corrective measures.
- Bullying can happen between two individuals (and is often passed off as a personality clash). The one-on-one bully may actually be a serial bully, who bullies a number of people, all at once or over time. One individual can bully an entire group.
- A group may target an individual. (The term mobbing is sometimes used to describe this.)
- Or – worst case scenario – the entire work setting may have become such a toxic workplace that bullying has become commonplace, and everyone dreads going there.
Depending on where you are situated within your organization, and on how you are regarded there, this information may reach you in a variety of ways :
- Direct, firsthand experience
- Environmental scanning
- Third-party report
- Informal complaint
- Formal complaint
- An online screening tool
- Employee survey (print or online)
- Focus group discussion
- Regular dialogue opportunities
- Exit interview data
Indicators may include :
RUDE AND MEAN-SPIRITED COMMENTS
- Offensive language
- Mean-spirited criticism
- Verbal putdowns
- Name calling
- Remarks that belittle or embarrass
- STRAINED RELATIONS AMONG EMPLOYEES
- Friction, edginess, and
- People being
frozen out, shunned
- Conflicts that keep resurfacing
- Repeated verbal sniping
- Gossip, rumors, and innuendo
- Two -faced behavior
- Stealing another person’s ideas
- Withholding urgent messages
- Tampering with someone’s work or workstation
INAPPROPRIATE SUPERVISORY OR MANAGERIAL TACTICS
- Micromanaging, breathing down employees’ necks
- Scolding someone in front of others
- Constant fault-finding, providing only negative feedback
- Imposing impossible and unnecessary deadlines and expectations
- Constantly changing rules, roles, reporting structures, and job requirements
- Withholding necessary information/resources/training
- Giving people assignments for which they lack skills, time, or authority
- Setting people up to fail
- Hounding staff outside of office hours
DETERIORATING WORKING CLIMATE
- Lower morale
- Increasing gossip and rumors
- More absenteeism
- Lower productivity
- More and longer leaves related to stress or illness
- Higher turnover
- More difficulty attracting new employees
- More lawsuits and legal action
- Unpredictable, explosive outbursts
- Imposing unsafe working conditions
- Threats or intimidation
- Acts of violence (with or without a weapon)
- Criminal acts
- Personal harassment
- Sexual harassment
- Abuse of authority
- Toxic workplace
- Psychological harassment (officially recognized only in Quebec and Saskatchewan)
- sexist, racist, & homophobic comments and/or humor
- violation of protected grounds as defined by local/regional/national legislation
- failure to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with special needs
- Often, the target of the bullying may feel too intimidated to speak up.
- Bystanders who see what is going on may feel that it isn’t their problem or their business, or may not know what to do and so hold back from getting involved.
- Supervisors or managers may feel inadequately prepared to address such issues. They may downplay them, treating them as
personality conflictswhich it is up to the affected employees to resolve on their own.
- The target’s own well-being, and that of co-workers, may be in jeopardy if the situation is allowed to continue.
- Without feedback, bullies will be unlikely to self-correct.
- Silence is complicity.
- It is important to remove the threats of humiliation, scapegoating, and retaliation, because where these are used by managers or co-workers, employees quickly learn to hide and cover up anything that goes wrong.
- When openness is valued, and people know that they will not be penalized for acting in good faith, they are more likely to come forward.
- If people in a workplace are genuinely committed to learning from mistakes, conflicts, and negative events, they will create safe, confidential ways to report these occurrences. It’s crucial to provide a safe forum in which these difficulties can be explored in an open, non-blaming manner.
- Some targets may be reluctant to make a formal complaint. It is important be clear about when their confidentiality can be maintained, and when the seriousness of the problem requires some form of action, with or without their consent.
- It’s important to identify and reduce or repair any harm, learn from what has happened, and prevent it from happening again.
- Good debriefing encourages both individual and organizational learning.
- To assess the work climate, employers might seek input from current employees and managers, those who have recently left the workplace, job applicants who have declined employment offers, and clients. See assessment tools.
- Bullying often involves power differences and the abuse of power, but the dynamics are not always clear. The person accused of bullying may make a counterclaim of being bullied. Further information gathering is needed to untangle competing versions of events. See flow chart
- The bully often holds power of some sort over the target. That makes it hard for the target to speak up. That power may come from job title, a forceful personality, who the bully influences, or being part of a group.
- When there is a power imbalance, several things can be done to make dialogue possible. Targets may want to rehearse what needs to be said, take along a support person, have a third party chair a meeting with the bully, or have someone speak on their behalf.
- To protect the parties involved while an investigation is carried out, the organization may temporarily reassign the accused and/or the target to another work unit or to home, remove any working or supervisory relationship between the parties, and put measures in place to protect the identity of witnesses.
- An employee handbook and orientation sessions for new employees can be first steps.
- Employees inevitably notice how others behave in the work setting, and model their behavior on what they see. It’s important to ensure that appropriate behavior is being modeled at every level of the organization.
- Mentoring (or buddy program) is one way of becoming more intentional about
learning by example. Employees who set a particularly good example can be recruited and trained to coach and guide new employees, showing them what is expected of them.
- As part of strategic planning, most organizations develop a vision statement and a set of values that talk about the significance of the work that they do and the unique manner in which they approach it. That’s a good place to begin. Individual employees and work units can be encouraged to explore how to put the vision and values into daily practice.
- When employees are actively involved in setting standards for how to treat people at work, they’re more likely to try to live by and meet these expectations.
- The sooner the problem behavior is identified, the milder the means needed to address it. Behavior that has become entrenched is much more difficult to correct, and generally requires more intensive intervention.
- First, all employees need to be made aware of the many forms that workplace bullying can take and how to recognize it.
- The distinction between managing and bullying needs to be made clear. It often lies in how things are done.
- All employees can be taught a simple, straight-forward approach to discussing the offending behavior with its perpetrator at the earliest signs of difficulty.
- Indicate in positive terms why the working relationship is a valued one, and invite the other party to engage in a conversation aimed at improving the working relationship. Approaching it this way makes this a shared issue, rather than just the target’s problem
- State clearly, using
Imessages, what the objectionable behavior is, and what impact it has on the target (and anyone else affected by it).
- Together, brainstorm ways of improving the situation
- Together, develop a shared action plan for improvement.
- Targets may benefit from supportive coaching. This includes examining what seems to trigger the bullying, and rehearsing how to change the current pattern of interaction. Targets may need to practice how to address the problem with the bully. It’s good for them to be able to debrief after the initial conversation with the bully has taken place, to review how it went and to fine-tune their action plan.
- In some cases, the target may feel that a third party is needed to chair the meeting, so that a conversation with the bully can take place in safety.
- In still other cases, the target may need someone to speak with the bully on their behalf.
- Bullies need to be told what they are accused of doing and the impact that is associated with the behaviour.
- They also need to understand the process that will be followed in addressing this situation, and their rights and responsibilities
- Bullies should be made aware of whatever resources/services are available to them.
- The first time people are accused of bullying, they may react with shock and/or denial. It’s a very unsettling accusation, and it may be hard for them to see themselves in that light.
- Helping people to consider seriously information with which they have been presented is a crucial step, and requires supportive listening.
- Counseling or coaching referrals should be made available.
- If a bully agrees that a change in behavior and/or attitude is in order, then ongoing support will probably be needed. Even if the charges are proven, the bully may remain in denial. At this point, progressive discipline may need to be initiated (spelling out what s/he needs to do, and consequences for not complying).
- In some cases, a trusted peer, a corporate circle process, or a 360-degree review may be ways of helping the bully to understand, accept, and come to terms with the impact of his/her behavior on others in the workplace.
- Bystanders can be trained to recognize the many forms that bullying can take, and the range of bystander roles. This training can help them learn to apply practical problem solving skills
- In addition to helping bystanders develop appropriate skills, the organization also needs to make it clear that it is part of their responsibility to take action.
SUPERVISORS AND MANAGERS
- Supervisors and managers have a responsibility to address workplace bullying that comes to their attention. In order to do this effectively, they need both awareness training and skill development.
- The situation will be more complex if the supervisor or manager is considered to be part of the problem. (See section on BULLIES.)
- It’s important to involve all levels of the organization in developing policy and procedures from senior management to the front line employees. Any workplace unions need to be partners in this process. Change begins with commitment.
- While it is clear that those in management and leadership roles have a special responsibility to ensure a respectful, safe, inclusive, and emotionally healthy workplace, they cannot achieve this alone.
- People need to know what to do if they become aware of bullying situations in the workplace. To whom should such matters be reported? Can a third party file a complaint? When is reporting obligatory, and when is it optional?
- Employees need to feel confident that such matters will be taken seriously, that their confidentiality can be assured, and that they will not suffer in any way for having come forward.
- Awareness training on workplace bullying needs to be offered to everyone on an ongoing basis, in ways that will capture attention. As new policies and procedures are developed, all employees must be kept informed.
- Various levels of skill development will be needed for people at various levels of responsibility
- All employees will need awareness training, bystander roles, early recognition and early intervention , and current policies and procedures.
- Supervisors, managers, union representatives, and any designated peer advisors or peer mediators will need these basics, plus more advanced training in intervention, conflict transformation skills, initial intake and assessment, referral protocols, non-violent crisis intervention, investigation protocols, and postvention procedures.
- In most workplaces, employees often take their problems to informal helpers – people who are nonjudgmental, good listeners, and willing to help. These informal helpers should receive appropriate training, support, and recognition.
Two or more opposing versions of the story, without any witnesses
In cases such as this, information gathering needs to be especially thorough. You’ll want to watch for any contradictions between the parties’ stories. Maybe what they say is out of step with their body language. It’s reasonable to examine both parties’ employment histories, explore any recent changes in circumstances or behavior, gather observations from other employees, determine whether the parties encounter each other outside of the workplace, and search for any other information that might be relevant. This information will provide the basis for either an in-house assessment or an external investigation.
Allegation of bullying in the upper ranks of the organization
If possible and practical, efforts should be made to address the problem before it escalates. Identify any third-party witnesses and any allies who are willing to help address the problem. A group within the senior management team or one of the bully’s peers may be able to help. The goal is to make the bullies aware of the negative impact of their behavior, and to encourage and support self-reflection and behavioral change. It may also be possible to raise the bullies’ awareness by involving them in examining bullying-related situations in other organizations, or in creating or updating a respectful workplace policy or organizational code of conduct.
Allegation of bullying by a board of directors
Begin by documenting the problem behaviors and identifying the key players. The board chair may be able to help if not directly involved. Determine whether existing policies are being violated, and whether policies need updating. Use some form of facilitated intervention to clear the air. Employees and board members need a clear understanding of board roles and responsibilities.
Allegation of bullying by an elected official
Again, start by documenting the problem behaviors and identifying the key players. Determine whether existing policies are being violated, and whether policies need updating. Structured dialogue may help to clear the air. Orientation and/or training of elected officials can help to clarify the limits of their authority, and to define appropriate behavior Ultimately, elected officials have been voted into office, and can be voted out if they are behaving in inappropriate ways.
Allegation of bullying by an externally contracted employee
Start by approaching the externally contracted employee’s supervisor or manager about the situation. When contracting services, communicate your organization’s code of conduct and ensure that contracted employees are aware that they, too, must comply with these guideline.
Addressing bullying by clients or members of the public
Staff who are expected to interact with clients or the public should know what to do in any situation where they encounter abusive behavior by clients or the public. These guidelines on abusive behavior by clients or members of the public also need to be communicated to clients and the public.
- Workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination often stem from fear of … or hatred toward … those who are different from the bully.
- Employees need to respect and value diversity. The organization should explain the rationale for its equity measures.
- Employees need appropriate skills to be able to communicate effectively with those who are different from themselves.
- Diversity competency should be made an integral part of professional development and performance management plans. Many agencies, companies and institutional resources can offer training in this area.
- Begin by getting a clear overview of the kinds of bullying which are actually occurring within the organization. That will help to determine what kinds of responses are needed.
- Focus on early recognition and early intervention. That means tackling the problem before it has had time to worsen. It also allows you to deal with it in the least intrusive way.
- More serious or persistent problems may require any or all of the following: formal investigation, progressive discipline or other sanctions, involvement of security or the police/RCMP, or the laying of criminal charges.
- Threat assessment and risk management need to be part of the assessment.
- A broadly representative advisory committee or steering committee should oversee the plan.
- It should be possible to move with ease between the informal and formal systems, depending on what information comes to light.
- After a bullying situation has been investigated, appropriate information sharing and debriefing are needed.
- Behavioral change needs to have appropriate support.
- When charges have been determined to be unfounded, then the air needs to be cleared. See debriefing (Link 1) (Link 2).
- When changes to staffing or reporting structures are made, debriefing can help to support successful transitions.
- Emotional harm needs to be acknowledged and repaired.
- Some combination of appropriate information sharing, facilitated discussion, a corporate circle process, critical incident debriefing, reconciliation or alternative dispute resolution will be needed.
- Start by identifying any unhealthy workplace conditions or dynamics that may be putting employee well-being at risk. Develop an action plan to address them.
- Workplace-based education about mental health issues can help employees to recognize risk factors in themselves and in others.
- Public champions speaking frankly about mental health issues can help to destigmatize mental illness.
- Make an anonymous, online screening instrument readily available to help employees to self-assess for mental health risk factors or warning signs. It should include a list of available resources and support services, including the Employee and Family Assistance Program (where one exists).
- When an employee is on leave from the workplace because of stress or mental health issues, maintain an appropriate level and type of contact to prevent a sense of isolation or abandonment.
- When employees have been on stress leave or are being actively treated for mental health issues, work with them to develop a return-to-work plan. Put reasonable accommodation measures in place.
- It is quite common for employees to expect a black-and-white decision following a workplace bullying investigation, but this is rarely the case. They need to know from the outset that a thorough investigation will examine the contributions of all parties to the workplace bullying situation While these contributions may be unequal, all of them will need to be explored.
- What level of investigation is required? Can it be conducted internally, or is outside expertise needed?
- Is there any concern about perceptions of bias or conflict of interest? If the answer is yes, then you’ll need an external investigator.
- See Diagnostic Flow Chart and Explanatory Notes for Diagnostic Flow Chart
- In choosing an external investigator, consider:Credentials and reputation The breadth and depth of their experience with the type of bullying involved in the current case The investigator’s knowledge base, values, beliefs and approaches The investigator’s willingness and ability to
speak the languageof the organization (i.e. to adapt their language and approach to the nature and specific needs of the organization) The investigator’s acceptability to all of the parties involved
- Be clear about the role, purpose, mandate, and terms of reference of the advisory committee or steering committee. What is it expected, and not expected, to do? (Create the business case for a respectful workplace initiative? Analyze problems, patterns, and trends over time? Advise on policy and procedures? Adjudicate disputes? Oversee implementation of a respectful workplace plan? Evaluate outcomes? Provide peer education? Act as a point of referral? Provide links o resource people?)
- Recruit members broadly and ensure that all distinct areas and levels are represented at the table.
- Choose members who are credible and above reproach. (This presents particular challenges in a toxic workplace.)
- Establish confidentiality rules at the outset. These are sometimes easier to understand when specific examples are given.
- Provide clear job descriptions, reporting structures, performance expectations, and workplace values for all employees.
- Let employees know what kinds of behavior are considered unacceptable in the workplace, and what the consequences will be if they occur.
- In addition to the orientation and the employee handbook, consider a mentoring or buddy program for new employees. A mentoring system needs a clear role description and selection criteria, adequate training, and periodic debriefing.
- Define core skill sets to guide professional development, with particular attention to supervision, diversity, conflict resolution, and coaching.
- When an employee and organization are no longer compatible, (a) open up dialogue about how best to resolve the impasse; (b) assess the organizational values to see if they are continuing to serve the organization well or may need to be revised; and/or (c) provide appropriate support measures to help the employee make a dignified departure from the organization.
- When a significant number of employees leave a work unit that should automatically trigger follow-up to determine possible causes.
- A third party agency (comparable to an attendance management program) can conduct confidential exit interviews. It would keep statistics about employees’ reasons for leaving and would flag any potential trouble spots to the organization for appropriate follow-up, within the limits set by confidentiality requirements.
- Develop a solid information base to help track patterns and trends over time.
- Are the measures currently in place relevant and effective? See assessment measures.
- Consult employees, unions, and management regarding the current workplace climate, and the effectiveness of current harassment prevention, intervention, and postvention measures.
- Invite regular input on how to improve policies and procedures. Use a variety of channels, analyze the response, and report key findings and recommendations back to the stakeholders.
- When you find strategies that work especially well, tell us!
- Share best practices and lessons learned wherever and whenever you can — through specialized, stand-alone networks and events, and as part of broader professional networks and professional development events.
- Do your part to promote broader public awareness.
- When they’re feeling unhappy at work, most employees will first seek the advice of a trusted friend or family member. This listener’s role in the early stages is crucial, because it can shape everything that will follow.
- A good, reliable listener can help unhappy employees to pinpoint the source of their misgivings, any contributing factors, and where the ownership of the problem lies. This process can help to separate legitimate concerns from unreasonable expectations.
- Where the
reasonable persontest suggests that unacceptable workplace behavior is occurring, the listener may be able to help the employee identify predictable patterns — circumstances, events, or potential triggers – underlying such behavior.
- The target should be made aware that it is important to document behaviors and incidents in enough specific detail to allow a
reasonable personto draw an informed conclusion. Together, the listener and the employee may be able to brainstorm and rehearse some potential solutions, both informal and formal.
- A listener who is aware of a range of available options will be able to help the employee to make informed choices about how to proceed, and to help them to develop a viable action plan for addressing/reporting the problem.
- Public awareness can be promoted through a variety of means, including:
- Public service announcements
- Public information sessions
- A media awareness campaign
- Media interviews and features
- A well-publicized and well-linked Website
- A CD-ROM
- Printed materials
- Household mailings
- Popular theatre (skits)
- Training offered in the workplace
- Guest speakers at service organizations, professional associations, and other venues