No one goes to work to be humiliated, ostracised, abused, or assaulted and yet, this is the reality for more than one in six workers in Australia. Bullying extends far beyond the school yard into our adult lives and it’s psychological and financial costs to our nation are immense.
Psychologist and author of Bully Blocking at Work: A self-help guide for employees and managers, Evelyn M. Field, says having a collaborative workplace where people work together to resolve conflicts, is good for business and it’s good for people.
“Every organisation needs to have workplace bullying policies in place at every level, from the truck drivers to senior managers. These policies need to have consequences and procedures and there needs to be training so that everyone understands what bullying is and what they can do about it.”
Whether at work or at school, the one thing I never understood about the psychology profession’s approach to bullying, is the focus appears to be on treating the victim, rather than modifying the behaviour of the bully.
When my oldest son was being bullied at high school back in 2001, he was the one sent to the school counsellor for treatment – an approach which I happen to think has ‘blame the victim’ written all over it. I was outraged, why should my child have to modify his behaviour. After all, isn’t it the bully the one with the problem?
Not so, says Evelyn Field. Firstly, she prefers the word ‘target’ to victim and secondly, because bullying often takes place in a toxic environment, no one and this includes managers and bystanders, is either innocent or guilty.
“Sometimes it’s very hard to tell the difference between the target and the bully because a person can be both. So I might see my boss as a bully, but she or he might be bullied from above. This is the problem with bullying. If we just look at the target or the bully, then we’re missing the big picture, and the big picture is that bullying at work is really about a dysfunctional workplace.”
Evelyn M. Field has been working and writing in the field of workplace bullying and school bullying for many years. Her previous books on school bullying, Bully Busting and Bully Blocking are bestsellers and have been published in five languages.
Although there are some crucial differences between bullying at work and bullying at school, there are also many similarities between the two.
Evelyn Field explains, “When we look at the school bully, the evidence shows that they’re raised by parents who have inconsistent guidelines about violence – one day you can bash your baby sister, the next day you can’t. So these children see what happens at home and then they go and repeat the behaviour at school.”
“If you look at the bully in the workplace, what you’ve got is someone who may have been a bully all their lives and been allowed to get away with it and then they are allowed to behave like that at work because of managers and the workplace culture.”
Evelyn Field points to the case of Brodie Panlock, the young Melbourne woman who committed suicide after being bullied at work.
“Here was a girl who was being teased and bullied by her workmates, the boss knew about it and all he said is ‘Do it out the back’. He should have intervened immediately and said ‘Look guys, this is unacceptable. This is bad for Brodie and this is bad for business’. But he didn’t and that’s the problem – bullies are allowed to continue because their managers are passive or aggressive. I think what they did to Brodie was criminal.”
In that case the court ordered the business owner, the manager and the three men who literally bullied young Brodie to death, to pay a total of $335,000*.
In the mid-1990s Charlotte Rayner, Professor of Human Resource Management at Portsmouth Business School in the UK, completed the first major survey on workplace bullying for the BBC. Through her work with UNISON, one of the largest employers in the United Kingdom, Professor Rayner found that if an organisation employed one thousand people, workplace bullying would cost that organisation £1 million (AU$1,646,813) per year.
Closer to home, the School of Management at Griffith University did a study in 2001 that found if the rate of bullying in the workplace was just 3.5%, the cost our nation would be between sixteen and thirty-two billion dollars a year. Unfortunately, the rate of workplace bullying in Australia is actually higher than that and this figure does not include all the costs associated with mediation, going to court, higher insurance premiums and bad publicity.
“If you complain about a bully and it gets worse – which most often happens – then the whole thing escalates out of control and there are no winners except your lawyers or the rehabilitation providers. We have millions of dollars being spent on legal cases because employers don’t do two things: validate somebody’s concerns; and create a safe workplace.”
Bully Blocking at Work: A self-help guide for employees and managers by Evelyn M. Field is published by Australian Academic Press, RRP $29.95.
* Workers find $115,000 over bullying of cafe waitress by Steve Butcher, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February 2010.