Bullying in the workplace - lessons learnt so far

Written by Stephen Hooper

As mediators and facilitators involved in addressing workplace bullying issues, Fair Way has developed a significant level of experience supporting people to resolve issues and helping organisations to foster meaningful change. So, based on our experience of the modern workplace, how can organisations support their staff and shift their workplace culture?

One of the primary issues with cases of bullying and intimidation is the breadth of the topics that are potentially captured within the scope of these claims. These can range from concerns over the way in which people are speaking to each other within the organisation, misunderstandings, and miscommunications around performance reviews to awful cases of intimidation and harassment. The complaints can include bullying by colleagues, managers, customers, or clients.

What we're seeing

We have noticed that bullying-related cases usually progress through a series of observable patterns. They tend to begin at the lower end of the scale and gradually increase in seriousness. Over the years working with staff in this context, managers have often reported seeing the warning signs that ‘something was going wrong’ or behaviour that ‘required a closer look’ long before the concerns were raised. Staff began avoiding each other or employees would withdraw or disengage. Sometimes work performance would decrease, or staff would start taking extra days off work for stress related illness.  It is vital that organisations watch for the warning signs of conflict, and that managers endeavour to catch these subtle changes as they arise. If issues can be captured at an early stage, there is greater scope to discuss and address any emerging problems.

The wide range of concerns that can be encompassed within a claim of bullying or intimidation also mean that when staff raise an issue, these complaints need to be taken seriously. It is vital that managers spend time genuinely listening and attempting to understand the scope of the issues that are unfolding. This requires a genuine sense of empathy and careful questioning. Managers need to be certain they know what is happening before any action is taken.

The importance of engagement

One of the problems we have encountered is that managers initially engage strongly with staff concerns, but as soon as they believe they have understood the staff member’s issues, their engagement drops and they often dismiss the situation as a communication or performance matter. However, disengagement and assumptions will cost you both empathy and trust. It will also make it less likely that future issues will be raised by staff using internal systems.

More than just a checklist

Another essential lesson is that organisations must move beyond the ‘tick box’ approach to staff health and safety and embed a genuine culture of wellbeing support. It is not enough for employers to have all of the ‘right policies’ in place, there must be an authentic concern for staff wellbeing. If we truly value our people, the culture of the organisation must be consistent and authentic. If there are concerns, these need to be taken seriously and appropriate reviews and investigations need to be undertaken to understand what is happening. At times, this will require prompt independent assessments to establish the underlying issues. Prolonged delays only make the problems worse for everyone concerned and can sometimes limit the options available when finding a resolution.

Finally, once issues have been identified, it is vital that the employer wraps support systems around the employees involved. It is a limited, underwhelming and insufficient approach to simply remind staff that ‘EAP services are available’. Managers need to have the conversation with those involved to determine what steps will help them to work through their concerns and move forward.

If your organisation is interested in seeking support with these issues, we would be happy to discuss any of these matters with you in greater detail.

Where can we assist?

We are experts in resolving conflict at work. Employers across Aotearoa partner with us to improve wellbeing, build internal capability and positively address conflict. We provide a range of workplace services including training and workshop packages, investigations and dispute resolution services.

If you would like to find out more about Fair Way’s workplace services, please get in touch via workplace@fairwayresolution.com or call 0800 77 44 08.

About the author

Stephen is a Senior Resolution Practitioner with Fair Way Resolution. He has a wealth of experience in employment dispute resolution, having worked as a lawyer and mediator for nearly 30 years. His career has spanned the public and private sector both locally and overseas.

If you would like to get in touch with Stephen, you can contact him by emailing Stephen.Hooper@fairwayresolution.com