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The Monster at the Workplace

In this competitive global economy, where competition is no longer limited by geography or industry, formidable new competitors can arise seemingly overnight. To succeed in the business environment, organizations must be able to inspire all levels of employees to be innovative or risk being overtaken by creative competitors. In such an environment, one of the surest ways for an organization to fail is its inability to innovate.  A major factor that kills innovation is workplace bullying. Bullies not only stifle productivity and innovation throughout the organization, but they most often target an organization’s best employees, because it is precisely those employees that bullies see as a threat. As a result, enterprises are robbed of their human capital in today’s competitive business environment. For organizations to survive, they must root out workplace bullying before it crushes their employees’ creativity and productivity, or even drives out their best employees, fatally impacting an organization’s ability to compete.

This article discusses bullying in the workplace, looking at its various forms and implications. It also discusses cyberbullying in the light of remote working occasioned by the spread of Covid-19. The article will look at Ghana’s regulatory framework on the subject and propose some measures that workers can adopt when bullied. It then concludes with suggestions on the way forward.

Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying consists of “acts or verbal comments that could psychologically or ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate a person in the workplace. Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behavior that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade, or humiliate a particular person or group of people. It has also been described as the assertion of power through aggression”[1]. Bullying, therefore, takes the form of verbal, physical, social, or psychological abuse. Concerning workplace bullying, there is usually evidence of interpersonal hostility in the workplace through aggressive behaviors which happen frequently over a long time. Further, it happens where there is an imbalance of power.

Forms of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying may take various forms. The verbal or physical abuse may be obvious. However, other less obvious forms include:

  1. Requesting an employee to undertake new tasks or tasks that fall outside the employee’s typical duties or skill set without training.
  2. Stalling applications for training, leave, or promotion without valid reasons.
  3. Removing areas of responsibility without cause.
  4. Giving unreasonable deadlines that will set up the individual to fail.
  5. Constant or frequent unwarranted supervision by the employee’s supervisor or manager.
  6. Persistently ridiculing an employee with the explanation that the employee cannot handle his/her work and thus requires further training though the specific shortfalls are not discussed with the employee.

These incidents may initially seem random. However, they may become continuous and cause the employee to worry that such incidents are a result of his/her actions and cause the employee to fear that he/she is likely to be fired or demoted.  Consequently, thinking about work, even during time off and leave days may cause anxiety, fear, and stress affecting the employee’s physical, emotional, and mental health which may indirectly impact their work output. There are instances where workplace bullying has led to the death of employees by suicide as happened in the Brodie Panlock case in Victoria, Australia where a 19-year-old took her own life after being relentlessly bullied at work leading to the passage of the Brodies Law.[2]

Remote Working and Cyber Bullying

Workplace bullying is not only confined to the physical workplace where the employees meet as a group. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about an increase in remote working, that is, working from home or places other than the physical workplace designated by the employer. As companies shift to remote work, workplace bullying has shifted into cyber bullying which is on the rise[3]. Workplace cyberbullying typically occurs through email, social media, internal communication platforms, voice calls, or text messages. Workplace cyberbullying is generally defined to cover “frequent interruptions during virtual meetings, unkind emails and repeated and excessive emails from managers. Some employees may “hide behind their screens” and not uphold the usual standards expected of them”. With this work arrangement, bullies can reach their victims at all times of the day due to the increased use of and reliance on technology to communicate. Natalia D’Souza, of Massey University in New Zealand, stated that “workplace cyberbullying can extend into targets’ home lives and act as a constant stressor, preventing them from unwinding and replenishing their coping resources.” Cyberbullying has the same effect on employees as in-person workplace bullying. The emotional turmoil to the victim and the risk to the organization remain the same.

Implications of Bullying

Workplace bullying (including cyberbullying) exists in organizations often between a superior and a subordinate and in less varying degrees between or amongst co-workers. Bullying can have serious effects on the physical, emotional, and mental health of an individual leading to anxiety, depression, and low self-worth. Bullying in the workplace is a systemic problem related to the actions and reactions of an organization. It also affects the individuals involved, as well as all those who witness the behavior. Whilst witnesses may be willing to actively help and support the employee being bullied, it is often very difficult for them to stand up against the bully. Often, they fear retaliation from the bully, as they fear losing their job or may believe that they do not have the authority to intervene. Additionally, persons who witness such bullying may either ignore the bullying or frame it as “normal behavior”, especially when it is recurrent within the organization without consequences or without the perpetrator being held accountable. These behaviours affect the productivity of the individual and since the achievement of the organization is dependent on the collective efforts of all its staff, poor performance of individual staff has a snowball adverse effect on the organization. Specifically, workplace bullying will result in poor work performance, valuable employees leaving the organization, and a hostile work environment.

In a survey conducted by the International Bar Association’s Legal Policy and Research Unit, which examined the nature, prevalence, and impact of bullying at the workplace, the responses showed that the failure to combat bullying has very serious consequences, including employees leaving the workplace. The ultimate effect of this is that it is likely to lead to a detrimental impact on the brand and reputation of the organization. Where there is no accountability for bullying in an organization, it can quickly become an entrenched problem. When this happens, there are implications not only for the employees but the organization too, as unhappy staff are not productive staff.

Regulatory Framework in Ghana

Ghanaian law provides that every worker has the right to work in a safe and healthy environment. Consequently, all employers have a responsibility to ensure that their employees work under satisfactory, safe, conducive, and healthy conditions by developing and implementing workplace practices that address inappropriate workplace behavior and respond to complaints effectively. The Constitution of the Republic of Ghana, 1992, (“Constitution”) and the Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651) both provide for the need for an employee to work in a safe, healthy, and conducive environment. Too often, however, the focus has been on physical safety in the work environment and not the behaviors of colleagues employees, or superiors that affect the mental health of workers. Whilst it can be argued that bullying detracts from the requirement of a safe working environment, it is overlooked and not expressly mentioned in the regulatory framework. The Constitution and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) also prohibit discrimination based on gender, race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction, economic status, or social origin. If such factors form the basis of bullying at the workplace, such acts will be in breach of the statutory provisions against discrimination.

What Employees Can Do When Bullied

Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In a publication titled “Dealing with Workplace Bullying- A Practical Guide for Employees” published by the Government of South Australia under an Interagency Roundtable on Workplace Bullying discussion, the following can be considered as remedial and coping mechanisms:

  1. Employees who feel bullied must try to respond instead of reacting. Responding means being prepared for the outcome in advance and assessing the outcomes. Approach the bully and make it clear to the bully as soon as possible that the behavior is unacceptable.
  2. Employees must familiarize themselves with their rights and know their workplace bullying policy and the reporting procedure and follow it if needed. These procedures are often in an Employee Manual or the Employment Contract.
  3. Use more formal procedures to resolve the issue. By this approach, a formal investigation may be required if the informal procedures are not successful, or the situation is more serious.

If the situation cannot be resolved, consider the option of leaving the organization, as it is difficult to change a bully. Real behavior change is difficult, and it takes time. A bullied person would not have control over the bully’s willingness to accept that they have a problem and to work on it. Thus, the option available is to manage the situation. In the worst-case scenario, an employee who is bullied may decide to leave the job or be prepared for a long hard fight with the bully.

What Employers Can Do in Bullying Matters

Employers must take steps to maintain a work environment that is devoid of bullying. There must be active steps and measures to discourage bullying and to effectively deal with it quickly if it happens. Specifically, employers must:

  1. Ensure current policies and procedures address issues related to employees respecting one another in the workplace (physical or remote).
  2. Provide easy access to communication channels and support systems
  3. Process complaints fairly by implementing a standard investigation process to evaluate reported incidents.

Just as employers have preventative measures to deal with employees’ physical health, there must be systems to deal with bullying which affects the mental health of employees.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Bullying is not acceptable under any circumstance as it has, in extreme cases, caused the deaths of bullied employees by suicide (as in the Brodie Panlock Case). Bullying, therefore, has no place in an organization that seeks to be successful. Consequently, workplace bullying requires greater focus and priority due to its adverse effect on the employee. For organizations to compete, the organization needs to adopt internal measures that allow for complaints and investigation of bullying behavior without victimization. Additionally, the organization must train human resource personnel and managers to spot red flags such as when a superior refuses to assign tasks to particular employees, consistently undermines the employee’s work, or socially excludes particular employees and addresses them effectively. Stricter punishment must apply to bullies, especially in cases of serious bullying such as persistent criticism. Having a workplace policy on bullying that does not allow interference with any investigation is a step to prevent workplace bullying and is likely to benefit organizations and the health of their employees. This will ultimately boost staff retention and more especially retain top talent of the organization.

There should be a national dialogue to have a robust regulatory framework that adequately caters to persons bullied at the workplace and makes the penalty punitive enough to serve as a deterrent to others, especially in instances where the bully intends their victim to experience “mental harm” which encompasses suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Above all this, workers must always remember to take care of their own emotional and physical health first!

[1] Definition by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

[2] Crimes Act, 1958 (Act Number 6231/1958) Version 294, and (Section 21A (8), Amendment to the Victorian Crimes Act, 1958

[3] Gwen Moran, Why Remote Work Hasn’t Cut Down on Workplace Harassment, /www.fastcompany.com/90694967/why-remote-work-hasn’t-cut-down-on-workplace-harassment