Identifying the many faces of the corporate bully
Psychological Health

Identifying the many faces of the corporate bully
It comes in many colours - but the impact is always the same...

A position of power

With great power comes great responsibility, and unfortunately, the temptation to abuse that power. Bullying and harassment are a tale as old as time. On many occasions, humans have bullied or harassed those of lower status, different gender, different beliefs or less wealth. Before going any further, let's first define workplace bullying and harassment.

Workplace bullying is defined as persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting behaviour; abuse of power; or unfair penal sanctions__¹__. Harassment is an unwelcome conduct that is based on race, colour, religion, sex (including pregnancy), nationality, age, disability or genetic information. They’re distinct but essentially two sides of the same coin and leave the same kind of marks. Recipients are often left feeling upset, threatened, humiliated, or vulnerable, and with undermined self confidence. Workplace bullying can often lead to stress and even anxiety.

Up until the 2000s, there was a surge of such actions in the workplace. In recent years, the occurrence of these actions has steadily declined thanks to victims speaking out, employers taking notice, and finally laws in certain countries that make such actions illegal. But fewer occurrences is not the same as no occurrences. This is something that should, ideally, have no occurrences.

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Often the victim carries the blame for allowing these activities to occur in the workplace, because they did not speak out. What we fail to realise is that the bystander has an important role to play. If a bystander sees their colleague being harassed or bullied and chooses to remain silent, they are condoning the behaviour too.

The source...

Bullying and harassment can come from three sources; a superior, a colleague or a subordinate. However, sometimes, it can be hard to spot these actions because they are often termed as "hard management" or "discipline" if it's coming from a superior or as "jokes" or "messing around" if it's coming from a colleague. So where to draw the line?

The answer is grey rather than black and white. Ultimately it depends on the circumstances under which the action occurred. But that doesn't mean that there aren't ways to identify it. As described by Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety__²__, bullying and harassing behaviour does not include:

  • Expressing differences of opinion
  • Offering constructive feedback, guidance, or advice about work-related behaviour
  • Reasonable action taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of workers or the place of employment (e.g. managing a worker's performance, taking reasonable disciplinary actions, assigning work)

Now that it's clear what bullying and harassment aren't, let's talk about what they are. It can happen face-to-face, by letter, by e-mail, by text, via social media or by phone. One thing to keep in mind is that a one-off occurrence might not be linked directly to bullying or harassment because remember, it is a repeated pattern or behaviour. So keep an eye out for different actions that have the same underlying act of aggression.

Let's look at some examples of bullying and harassment. Bear in mind that this is by no means a complete list and variations of the events mentioned could still count as bullying or harassment.

  • Spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendos
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially
  • Intimidating a person
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse
  • Removing areas of responsibility without cause
  • Constantly changing work guidelines with little to no notice
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information
  • Making jokes that are offensive by spoken word, text or e-mail
  • Intruding on a person's privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavourable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)
  • Underwork - creating a feeling of uselessness
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Criticising a person persistently or constantly
  • Belittling a person's opinions
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • Tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment
  • Racial slurs, insults or jokes
  • Sexual slurs, insults or jokes
  • Intolerance towards others' religion, disabilities, sexual orientation etc.
  • Excessive intrusion into the employee's personal life
  • Inappropriate sexual touching or gestures
  • Invasion of personal space in a sexual way
  • Quid-pro-quo – a superior asks/expects certain uncomfortable things from their employee to either avoid punishment or receive a reward

Speak up!

Bullying and harassment need not be blatant and often happen in either a group targeting an individual or behind closed doors. Even if you are not the victim of such actions, a friend or a colleague might be. An easy way to find out is to simply notice if they have been feeling down or stressed about work more than usual lately and ask them what is happening.

SHAPE provides employees the opportunity to anonymously provide details in relation to type and frequency of bullying, as well as subsequent actions and outcomes – or reasons for inaction. It helps raise the voice of the victim, without speaking. The data does the talking. And we provide practical recommendations on how to improve the culture of the organisation.

Over the last few years, various social media campaigns have been launched to try to put a stop to bullying and harassment. From #TimesUp to #MeToo, victims from across the globe have mustered the courage to speak out and stand up for their rights. In the fight to create a safer and healthier workplace, everyone must play their part to make an impact. Time really is up!

__¹__McAvoy, B. R, and John Murtagh. 2003. "Workplace Bullying: The Silent Epidemic". BMJ 326 (7393): 776-777. doi:10.1136/bmj.326.7393.776.

²"Bullying In The Workplace : OSH Answers". 2016. Ccohs.Ca.

Psychological Health