Building a Civil & Respectful Workplace:

Bullying (Psychological Harassment)

What is Bullying?

Psychological harassment, which can also be called workplace bullying, involves hostile and unwelcome words or actions that affect an employee’s dignity or integrity, and results in a harmful workplace. A person bullies through direct or indirect comments and behaviours with the intention of attempting to harm a person’s psyche, morale, reputation or general well-being. Any behaviour, even unintentional behaviour, that intimidates, isolates, humiliates, threatens or discriminates against a targeted individual or individuals can be interpreted as psychological harassment or bullying.

Some examples of Psychological Harassment/Bullying are:

  • Saying or suggesting that someone is incompetent
  • Trying to embarrass, belittle, humiliate or demean someone especially in front of others
  • Using texting, email or other social media like Facebook to insult, embarrass, bully or tarnish a co-worker’s reputation
  • Hazing or initiation practices that are designed to humiliate and embarrass new employees
  • Threatening someone with the loss of their job
  • Spreading rumours, gossiping
  • Isolating a person by leaving them out of activities, projects or communications
  • Constantly nitpicking to find all that is trivial in nature
  • Intimidating a person
  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause to create a feeling of uselessness
  • Not giving proper credit for work done by someone
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • Constantly changing work rules
  • Yelling or using profanity, hitting, fists on desk
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that set up a co-worker to fail
  • Intruding on a person’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment
  • Belittling a person’s opinions, misrepresenting or twisting someone’s words
  • Assigning an unreasonable workload
  • Subjecting someone to deadlines with goals that others are not held to
  • Disciplining for trivial issues that are not substantiated or investigated
  • Repeatedly calling a colleague by an insulting name or repeatedly using a nickname they find offensive or dislike, either behind their back, to their face or both
  • Deliberately reprimanding. putting down or insulting a colleague in front of other co-workers
  • Identifying a colleague’s mistake and discussing it in public; overstating the error for the purpose of discrediting them
  • Non-verbal bullying such as rolling ones eyes or making rude gestures behind the targeted persons back; the bully might show aggressive posture, clenching their fists or glaring

Who Can Display Bullying Behaviour?

Anyone can display bullying behaviour:

  • A supervisor or manager
  • A co-worker
  • A contractor, client or agent
  • A volunteer
  • Anyone who is doing business within the organization

Effects of Bullying on the Targeted Individual

People who are the targets of bullying behaviour may experience a wide range of physical, emotional and psychological effects.
Some of these reactions might be:

  • Feeling isolated and alone
  • Losing confidence
  • Feeling anxiety, irritability, mood swings, depression, panic, dreading going to work
  • Anger, frustration, helplessness
  • Difficulty concentrating, increased mistakes in their work, loss of motivation
  • Nervousness, burnout, chronic fatigue, memory loss, weight loss
  • Musculoskeletal complaints
  • Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, headaches, stomach pains
  • Psychological trauma, stress, fatigue, illness, injuries
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Job loss
  • Disabilities
  • Thoughts of or actual suicide

How Does Bullying and Harassment Affect the Workplace?

Harassment and bullying can have a poisoned effect on the workplace as a whole. When a workplace is characterized by bullying, it is, by definition, a poisoned work environment; a place people will naturally try to avoid or leave resulting in increased absenteeism and turnover along with decreased morale. With such a workplace environment, an employer can look forward to: increasingly substantial legal costs to increased costs for absenteeism and sick time; low recruitment and retention; increased use of healthcare benefits and employee assistance programs; increased risk of accidents and loss of reputation and goodwill.

It is no longer felt that individuals should learn how to handle bullying on their own or that enduring bullying can be a character builder. It is now recognized that bullies are toxic individuals who can exact a terrible toll on their targets.

The best way to prevent bullying behaviour is to develop workplace civility policies and communicate them to employees. Such civility codes in an employer’s handbook go beyond the usual anti-harassment factors. Employees would do well to define bullying to their own specifications in accordance with their corporate and industrial cultures.

The Workplace:
Where is it?

The definition of workplace encompasses more than the four walls of the building. Workplace bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence can occur anywhere the business of the company is conducted. This includes places such as social functions, conferences, parking lots and anywhere outside of the workplace if the discrimination and harassment has or could have workplace repercussions.

The Impact
of Harassment

Even if a person being harassed does not verbally tell their harasser to stop, they may still express their discomfort or dislike through body language such as turning or walking away, crying, becoming silent or withdrawing from the conversation with the person/group. We all need to be aware of these signs.

What is not
Harassment or Bullying?

It is important to understand that a supervisor or manager who provides professional direction, council, discipline or performance reviews as part of their job is not considered to be harassing their workers.

Poisoned Workplace

When an employee is being bullied, harassed or threatened and no one takes action to stop the behaviour, there is substantial impact on the entire workplace environment. Stress levels go up, other workers feel at risk of being targeted, morale suffers, employees do not feel safe, workers start looking for jobs at other organizations, absenteeism increases and job performance suffers, just to name a few. Most importantly, harassers or bullies are given the clear signal that they may continue their behaviour without fear or repercussion. Targets of harassment and bullying are often afraid to report their situation because they don’t want to rock the boat or are afraid they might not be believed or taken seriously, and might be disliked by their co-workers. They also often believe that they will be labeled as troublemakers or possibly lose out on promotions or even lose their job. In reality, all laws that cover harassment and bullying also provide for protection from any form of retaliation, reprisal or threat of reprisal for anyone who brings forward a complaint or is a witness in a complaint process.

What to do about Bullying Behaviour

There are a number of options available for employees who believe they are being harassed or the target of bullying behaviour or even violence as well as for employees who have witnessed such behaviours.

  • Keep a record of dates, times, details, witnesses, and location of all situations of harassment and bullying
  • Only if you feel safe to do so, make your concerns known to the harasser
  • Follow your employer’s internal complaint procedure
  • Tell your supervisor about the harassment and bullying behaviour
  • Inform your supervisor directly and immediately of a threat or act of violence
  • Report the matter to police when you deem it appropriate for your safety and that of your co-workers

What Employers Can Do
About Bullying

Due diligence for employers requires that they:

  • Develop unambiguous anti-bullying, anti-harassment and anti-violence policies
  • Train employees and management on these policies
  • Set out a process for investigating complaints that is fair, thorough, unbiased and objective
  • Avoid practices such as routine over assignment of overtime and extra work that are a threat to employees’ mental health and well-being

Tips and Warning Signs

Here are some simple tips and warning signs to help you determine if your or someone else’s behaviour has crossed the line into harassment, bullying or violence:

  • If someone asks you to stop a particular behaviour, stop!
  • If you made someone cry, shake, become obviously uncomfortable and walk away or show any other signs of objection to what you have said or done, you have crossed the line.
  • Ask yourself, “how would I look if my behaviour was on the evening news?” 
  • Would I behave this way if my partner or spouse was in the same room?
  • Would I act this way towards someone who looks up to me, like my son, daughter, niece or nephew?
  • Does this interaction have mutual respect?
  • Am I feeling too emotional? Is my face flushed? Do I feel my blood pressure going up or my hands clenched?
  • if you can answer yes to any of these questions, walk away and take a moment to calm down.

Common Sense

Your employer expects everyone in the organization to contribute to a healthy, safe and respectful workplace by using common sense in all work-related situations. It sounds simple but workers do not always think before they speak. Consider another person’s feelings or count to ten when feeling angry or overwhelmed

The law says that it is everyone’s right to work in an environment free from harassment, bullying and violence. It is also everyone’s responsibility to contribute to such an environment.

On average, we spend as much time with our co-workers as we do our own families during the week. It is healthy to feel comfortable, accepted and safe within our group, unfortunately some workers may feel too comfortable and start behaving in ways that are not appropriate in the workplace.