Workplace Bullying - 
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 goji cream asli. 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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Workplace bullying

Bullying 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 corporate world.
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 examples.

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 workplace.

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 interpersonal relationships

  • 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

Work 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 (PTSD).

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 than men.

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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How to protect yourself against Work Trauma

  1. Be alert and know that you too can be the target in a hostile work environment.

  2. Don't let your position and status define you. Realise that you are more than your job or any professional title.

  3. Insist that you be treated with dignity and respect at all times.

  4. Assert yourself and confront the perpetrator; you cannot afford to be meek.

  5. Make use of the grievance procedures at your organisation.

  6. Record all incidents of hostile behaviour in your diary.

  7. 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.

  8. If necessary, make an appointment with a labour law consultant.

  9. Show support and understanding for targets or victims.

  10. Choose an empowering "theme song" (like Ally McBeal did) and sing it when you are under attack (at least in your mind)

  11. You are entitled to happiness at the workplace - campaign for a Code of Conduct that would effectively prohibit any uncivilized behaviour at work.

  12. Be sure to read and download Dr Susan's surival guide for victims/targets of workplace bullying.

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Human dignity

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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