the devastating experience
Workplace violence, physical and emotional, is the single biggest
threat to the workplace of the new millennium according to the International Labour
Organisation (ILO). A whopping 78% of employees in South Africa confirmed that
they had been bullied or victimised at least once in their careers.
Work is hell everywhere. Gone are the days when work was wholesome for body and
soul, and the workplace the centre of one's social empowerment. It is survival
ground. A Bedlam.
Hyena Bosses yell, scream and throw tantrums. Colleagues backstab, spread malicious
gossip, give you the silent treatment or ridicule. The downfall of a competitor
is planned and career executions are common place. This hostile and aggressive
behaviour is called bullying, mobbing, victimization, workplace aggression, work
rage or hostilities. By whatever name, workplace bullying is an alarming phenomenon.
Different names are evident in the press – people do not always like the reference
to “bullying”, but consider that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls
it “violence” – there are no scars, but in essence this behaviour leaves the victim
with invisible scars and is nothing less than violence.
Workplace violence, whether physical or emotional crossed international borders
according to a report released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
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is rife in the corporate corridors of this
country. Jobs are few and far between and people cling to what they have. The
human carnage and character assassinations in corporate SA are largely ignored.
This silent epidemic is eating away profits, careers and human potential.
Most people identify so strongly with their jobs that their whole self-esteem
derives from the position they hold. You are your position and nothing more. A
dangerous self-assessment! That is why the effects of workplace bullying is so
far-reaching and likely to trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when a person
is subject to Work Trauma.
Has this always been the case or are we dealing with a new phenomenon? Not totally
new, because it is also a by-product of the major and profound restructuring of
the workplace and globalization as companies lay off works to increase profits
and overload the remaining staff to the extent that stress is commonplace in the
This has led to an increase in negative survival behaviour like workplace bullying.
Everybody is vulnerable and employees could find themselves cleaned in the corridors
if they are not alert.
The outbreak of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is directly linked to work stress and
is endemic throughout the industrialised world, according to the World Health
Organisation. Employers continue to create hostile environments and apply aggressive
management styles to control and exploit employees, amidst international concern.
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The face of Work Trauma
There is no consensus on a definition for bullying in the international
arena yet. However, most researchers agree that these hostilities are:
persistent and prolonged in nature;
carried out by one or more persons against one or more targets;
conscious behaviour with the intention to harm the target;
affecting the targets or victims detrimentally and has a devastating influence
on the emotional well-being of this group.
The most frequently reported incidents of workplace bullying, according to all
researchers are the various forms of verbal aggression like insults, shouting,
Billingsgate vocabularies, name-calling, threats, talking about someone behind
his/her back, interrupting talk or work, humiliating an employee in the presence
of others, ridicule, teasing, sarcasm and false accusations. Also flaunting status,
mood swings, ignoring a person, aggressive posturing, undermining someone and
spreading stories, trumping up charges against co-workers, innuendoes, setting
a person up for failure and colleagues ganging up against a co-workers, are further
Overloading and abusing staff, racial discrimination and any unfair practice are
hostile to the well-being of the employee and fall within this category. Equally
serious but more dramatic than bullying is physical violence and homicide in the
The irony is that, while workplace violence and hostilities flourish in corporate
South Africa, we can hardly afford the time, energy and talent wasted by this
crippling phenomenon. Add to this sabotage like petty theft, industrial espionage
and the planting of viruses by frustrated employees, and we are talking billions
of Rands wasted.
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Who are the perpetrators?
The good news is that not all perpetrators are sociopath. Normal over-ambitious
and opportunistic people bully too. Everybody can be guilty of bullying at times
though. The sociopath bully is the worst, but the other perpetrators' behaviour
can be just as predatory as the 2-4% sociopaths of society. In 92% of cases the
bosses are the perpetrators, simply because they have the power. one only need
to read a book like Wakeman's "Stab your way to the top" to understand
why bosses are the biggest perpetrators. It is a "how-to-bully-and-abuse
subordinates" book for corporate climbers. This cold-blooded book's advice
reminds me of the sociopaths most outstanding characteristic; they don't care
what distress their action cause, as long as they reach their goals.
Some perpetrators would be driven by a lust for power the reason for others' behaviour
could be want of approval through competition, ambition, greed, incompetence,
feelings of entitlement, inferiority, fear, anger, sheer opportunism, etc. Sociopath
bullies are fascinating and charming, and notorious for their mimicry and callous
behaviour. Whether some bosses just follow Wakeman's advice or are indeed sociopaths
on a troll, is not the issue. It must be realised that this behaviour is very
harmful and unproductive and must be stopped, if necessary through legislation.
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Why and when do colleagues and bosses bully?
When their positions or authority are threatened
A small percentage of bullies are sociopath (2-4%) while others are mildly
antisocial and they bully for various reasons ranging from power play and their
obsession to control the environment to being threatened by a competency, popularity,
good looks etc. while some bullies are just opportunistic and would bully those
who are down on their luck or vulnerable to improve their own positions.
When the corporate culture of an organisation permits hostile behaviour, some
colleagues will follow the leadership and their managerial style mindlessly.
But even if the corporate culture is co-operative, workplace hostilities go
"underground" and would become very sophisticated.
Some circumstances encourage hostile work environments. These are managerial
factors like ineffective job descriptions, inappropriate and/or inadequate
communication, low moral standards, lack of stimulating and challenging
tasks and poor supervisors
Frustrations and conflicts relating to rights, obligations, position and poor
The need for a scapegoat.
The appointment of professional bullies or Serial Corporate Killers to get
rid of excessive staff so that companies need not pay large severance packages
Changes like restructuring, looming retrenchments and mergers can spark off
workplace wars in a normally peaceful environment.
There is a little bit of a hyena in every one of us!
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The effects on victims
Trauma has a devastating effect on the victims' productivity, emotional and
physical health. The victims waste, according to research, between 10 and 52
per cent of their time at work defending themselves and networking for support,
thinking about the situation, being demotivated and stressed, let alone absences
due to stress-related illnesses.
More often than not, victims blame themselves and doubt their own self-worth.
They feel shame and guilt and replay incidents over and over in their minds,
wondering if they could have done anything differently. They are anxious and
troubled. In the severe cases, victims suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
As one victim so eloquently described it on e-mail: "There is a huge difference
in the pre-bullied me and the post-bullied me. At present I jump at the sight
of my own shadow, am terrified of meeting people, am unable to make eye-contact
with people, get extremely agitated if people raise their voices etc. At first
glance someone might easily think, no wonder she was bullied, she got no self-confidence
or anything! Yes, these things are not the "real" me. It is just the
way my trauma manifests itself".
Professionals and the public are often misled by the vulnerability of the post-bullied
person. Generally, the trauma of the experience leaves the victim feeling powerless,
disorientated, confused, helpless and paralysed. It tends to be sudden and overwhelming
- as if it owns the person. In the above case, the victim suffers from PTSD
and the prognosis is that it may take her years to recover.
There is nothing "wrong" with victims. In fact, most people believe
that if they do things right, work hard etc. they will not become victims and
they distance themselves emotionally from victims. This is just a way of coping
with our fear of being at the mercy of another person. But the closer we get
to the victims, the closer we get to dealing with our own fears. Targets or
victims are by no means wimps who deserve to be treated less than dignified.
Victims are often selected for unfair treatment because of their abilities and
competence and for the perceived threat they pose to the perpetrator's career
ambitions. Statistics show that women are more vulnerable and likely targets
It has not yet reached the hearts and minds of the public that work trauma is
a gross violation of human rights. Victims need understanding and care during
and after such a shattering experience.
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The effect on witnesses and co-workers
The research of Dr. Charlotte Rayner of the
UK indicates that 20% of co-workers witnessing workplace bullying decide to
look for another job. As little as 2% felt that it was justified, while the
rest were distressed by it.
Yet co-workers sadly do not support the victim/target. They are scared that
they may be in line next, should they show any compassion. For the perpetrator
to be able to bully he or she needs secrecy, shame and silent witnesses, according
to the Drs. Namie of the USA: Most victims discover that, when the odds are
stacked against you, collegial relationships are short-lived. Co-workers either
participate in the witch-hunt or make themselves guilty of GroupThink. Psychologists
borrowed this Orwellian phrase to describe a group unable to take responsibility
for their decisions. They are easily conned into following a strong charismatic
leader and occupy themselves with falling in line, sucking up to the perpetrator
and staying in his/her good books. It is a mindless club, a clique whose sole
purpose is to squash any dissent and to stay in denial. Their silence is what
the perpetrators really need. Others would identify with the aggressor and make
themselves guilty of ganging up against the target.
It has been found that, when witnesses support the victim, the negative emotional
and physical effects of workplace trauma are reduced considerably. Victims receiving
support from colleagues are also more enduring and able to move on with their
lives afterwards. But most witnesses play into the hands of the perpetrator.
Even though they may be affected and demotivated by these incidents, they will
not support colleagues under attack
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to protect yourself against Work Trauma
Be alert and know that you too can be the target in a hostile work environment.
Don't let your position and status define you. Realise that you are more
than your job or any professional title.
Insist that you be treated with dignity and respect at all times.
Assert yourself and confront the perpetrator; you cannot afford to be meek.
Make use of the grievance procedures at your organisation.
Record all incidents of hostile behaviour in your diary.
Take the matter to the perpetrator's boss or a senior person in the organisation.
Be specific and open about the actions you would like them to take.
If necessary, make an appointment with a labour law consultant.
Show support and understanding for targets or victims.
Choose an empowering "theme song" (like Ally McBeal did) and sing
it when you are under attack (at least in your mind)
You are entitled to happiness at the workplace - campaign for a
Conduct that would effectively prohibit any uncivilized behaviour at work.
sure to read and download Dr Susan's surival guide for victims/targets of
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The drive for dignity and respect at the workplace
is high on the agenda in the UK and Europe and gaining momentum in places like
the USA, Australia and South Africa. We have given rise to a society where crime,
road rage and violence are commonplace. Now our workplaces have become violent
and hostile too. Society's support systems are eroded and victims suffer. This
is reason for alarm. Interventions must be directed at eliminating hostile behaviour,
reducing anger and establishing caring corporate cultures. It is time to heal.
Human dignity is at stake.
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