• Frank Pipolo
  • 10 March 2014

Bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying is on the increase.  Any talk about bullying usually centres on how this behaviour is prevalent in schools and its impact on students who are being bullied. While there are very few schools that do not have a stringent anti-bullying policy these days, it’s still common to come across reports of student bullying regularly.

Bullying is not restricted to schools, though, and also occurs in the workplace. In fact, we are witnessing a rise in bullying in the workplace, which is why employers need to put in place a stringent and comprehensive anti-bullying policy. But, before we get into what such a policy will look like, let’s take a closer look at ‘bullying in the workplace’.

Bullying can take the form of a personal attack such as spreading rumours, name-calling, or needless criticism about a person’s dress sense, looks or attitude. Some bullies think nothing of creating and displaying offensive photos or humiliating their co-workers in front of others. There are also cases when a few bullies gang up against a co-worker just to get back at them for some reason or other.

Bullying could also have professional overtones like purposely interfering with somebody’s work or denying access to progression opportunities or critical resources. At times, a bully can offer erroneous feedback about employees placed under them.

Sabotage, threatening with job loss, intimidating somebody with threat of physical violence or blackmail can also be other forms of bullying. The impact of bullying is not just limited to decreased productivity of the concerned employee - in a worst case scenario it can lead to harming the employee psychologically and, potentially, physically.

The onus is on the employer to tackle bullying with a firm hand.

The first thing we must understand is workplace bullying is not harassment and assault, which essentially means that bullies usually ‘get away with it’ in the absence of an anti-bullying policy. Bullying usually tends to be an accumulation of small incidents that occur over time and that make an employee feel uncomfortable, unsafe, intimidated or threatened. The fact that each incident appears to be trivial means employees who are subjected to this behaviour often ignore it until it’s too late.

Often, even employers overlook such behaviour because it looks insignificant and in the normal scheme of things does not warrant a disciplinary action.

But that’s where the problem lies. A handsoff approach to bullying and thinking that any interference in the interpersonal relationships of employees will have a detrimental effect on the morale of the workplace actually deteriorates workplace camaraderie.

‘Let them work out their issues with one another’ is a line that some bosses may use from time to time, but with this attitude, they are abdicating their responsibility of ensuring a healthy workplace environment for their employees. It’s an employer’s job to protect workers from bullying and step in and intervene before things get out of hand.

If a bully follows up with a threat of violence, you as an employer can be held liable when a victim sues the organisation.

Why wait for incidences of bullying to take place before you find a solution for them? Why not have a comprehensive bullying policy and enforce it strictly.

The bullying policy document should clearly define what the employer categorises as bullying and make it clear that bullying is just not acceptable and such behaviour will not be tolerated at all. This document should also clearly mention the action that will be taken against bullying employees, what constitutes a legitimate bullying complaint, and how an employee can file one.

Here are the fundamentals of a clearly defined bullying policy handbook:

  • A detailed list of what constitutes bullying e.g., threat, blackmail etc.
  • The disciplinary action that will be taken against the bully.
  • The reporting authority for filing a bullying complaint and the procedure.
  • The process that will investigate a bullying claim. This will also include the kind of proof that will be taken into consideration to prove a case of bullying.
  • Clearly elucidating what happens to the bully if the claim turns out to be true and the bullying is of a very serious nature.

Would this lead to termination of service, or some other punishment? Everything must be crystal clear to all your employees. It’s not enough that you have an anti-bullying policy; what is important is that all your employees know about it. It’s the responsibility of the HR department to make sure all employees are aware of the strict regulations that govern workplace behaviour and the stringent action that will be taken against workplace bullies.

As an employer, how you go about maintaining the sanctity of your workplace is completely your call. You could either choose to depend on the maturity of your employees to sort out such problems, or you can adopt a proactive approach to make sure such incidences do not occur in the workplace, and in the event they do occur, you have the framework in place to deal with it appropriately.

If you are really serious about combating bullying in the workplace, the latter approach is what you must go for. Ignoring that a problem like bullying actually exists has the potential to destroy your workplace. So give it the importance it deserves and do not think it’s a problem that can be wished away.


Frank Pipolo is a 20-year professional executive and writer for Swope, Rodante P.A.