Workplace bullying - one strike and you're out?

Consider the following:
- A manager withholds information from an employee that they need in order to do their job;
- An employee constantly tells a colleague to ‘shut the f--- up’;
- A team leader hides an employee’s work phone, and then they along with everyone in the team laugh as the staff member spends all morning looking for it;
- A manager assigns one of their sales reps impossible sales targets, then gives them a written warning when they don’t reach them.

What do these scenarios have in common? Whilst varied in terms of their degree of severity, they all constitute workplace bullying. The Department of Workplace Health and Safety defines workplace bullying as “the repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates a worker."

Unfortunately the fact is that you have probably come across bullying in the workplace during the course of your career. You might have seen it, heard it, or experienced it first hand but as HR professionals or business owners my guess is your experience has been in the unpleasant task of receiving and investigating such a complaint.

So let’s say you’ve gone through the investigation, confirmed that allegations of bullying are accurate, and now you have the tricky business of deciding what the outcome is going to be, and sometimes, whether or not the behaviour warrants termination. Here are some things you need to consider:

• Is the behaviour definitely in the category of workplace bullying, or should it be treated as something different? For example, two team members that have different styles of communication and become easily frustrated with each other are probably not ‘bullying’ each other but rather just need their manager to implement strategies to improve their communication skills and working relationship. In order to determine the consequences for the behaviour, you need to decide what the behaviour actually is, first.
• Secondly, if it is considered to be bullying behaviour, what has been the impact on employees, the business, and customers as a result of the bullying? What would the impact be if it were allowed to continue? Basically, how severe is the behaviour and how serious are the consequences for everyone involved?
• Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what is the response of the individual found to have perpetrated the bullying? Do they acknowledge their behaviour as inappropriate, display an understanding of the consequences of their actions, and express a willingness to change? Or do they minimize their actions, pass it off as a joke, and accuse the victim of overreacting? You should be very cautious in your assessment of the likelihood of a bully changing their behaviour if they don’t think anything is wrong with it in the first place.

So let’s say you decide not to terminate this individual. You find that it was a one-off incident on a bad hair day, or that they are willing to change their behaviour, and all affected employees can continue to work together. But how do you really do this successfully, and make it work in the long term?

• The individual found guilty of the bullying behaviour must clearly demonstrate two things. Firstly, there needs to be a full realization that their behaviour did constitute bullying and an understanding of the seriousness of their behaviour and the resulting consequences. Secondly, this person must show that they are willing to stop bullying, change their behaviour, and learn new strategies to communicate with their colleagues.
• Communication channels need to remain open and honest. The individual trying to change their bullying ways needs to receive clear and consistent messages about why their behaviour cannot continue. We have heard everything, from a slightly wishy-washy ‘I know you didn’t mean it but they took it that way’ to the much worse ‘it’s OK, I know they’re being oversensitive’. Instead what they need to hear is ‘this behaviour is not OK, and this is why it’s not OK.’ Anything less and you’re really doing that person a disservice, as they aren’t being helped to learn.
• Finally, it’s important to understand any other factors that may have contributed to the bullying behaviour. For example, a manager trying to motivate his staff by threatening them needs to be taught new strategies to motivate their team. Or a team member who gets easily angry when a colleague makes a mistake might need a qualified professional to assist them to develop new skills to better regulate their emotions. Remember - bullying doesn’t occur unaided, in isolation. It usually means that at some point bystanders have done nothing, the bullying behaviour has been ignored or implicitly condoned, and the bully doesn’t realise the severity of their behaviour, all of which are indicative of a potentially wider issue. HR managers and business owners dealing with a bullying complaint would be prudent to look at the bigger picture in order to identify any cultural issues with the organisation.

The key point here is that if the individual is to continue to work successfully in the business, the bullying behaviour needs to be directly addressed. Reforming a workplace bully is a relatively new concept. Previously businesses would, depending on the severity of the behaviour, either terminate the individual or just issue them a warning and move on. However as we talked about earlier, if a bully is going to remain with the organisation they must be willing to change their behaviour, be communicated with clearly, and be able to work with HR/Business Managers to tackle any other factors have contributed to their behaviour.
The types of programs that are most successful at changing bullying behaviour are typically those that offer a personalised structure. They are usually psycho-educational in their approach, focusing on providing information combined with individual counseling and intervention, before introducing alternative strategies for problem solving, communication and conflict resolution.

Here at HR Gurus we have been working on an exciting new program to help you reform a workplace bully, allowing them to go on and hopefully have a successful career within your organisation. Head to our website here to ask us questions, give us feedback, or find out more about how we can help!

Laura Lee
Head Psychologist
HR Gurus

Views: 2573

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on November 20, 2012 at 16:12


There seems to be little doubt that workplace bullying is the industrial disease of the 2st century, and like a silent cancer, is growing in size in some organisations.  Those being targeted are expressing concerns that they will be further targeted for reporting incidents, whilst in some cases, allegations are being made that individuals are being talked out of making complaints.  The absence of complaints data does not mean that workplace bullying is not occurring.

The view expressed in some forums is that bullies should have their employment of bullies terminated as soon as a complaint is made - no investigation, just termination.  Others express a more conciliatory view and suggest that maybe the alleged bully needs help to cope.  In some cases, the alleged bully may also be struggling in an environment that is conducive to bullying behaviours.

There continues to be considerable discussion in various forums regarding the way forward in relation to preventing, detecting and resolving workplace bullying and other forms of counterproductive workplace behaviours.

Whilst there are some signs of improvement and positive action being taken, there are still stories of victims/targets being let down by management, employer, personnel, legal system, health and safety, GPs and unions.

 Bullying is featuring in the media.  Media articles about workplace bullying, and in particular those where there is some evidence of salaciousness, appear on a regular basis.  There have been cases there the tragic suicide of individuals has lead to legislative change.

Taboos are slowly lifting and survivors are writing their books for various including revenge, therapy, social injustice issues, get their story out there, and to create public interest.

Employers and society need to recognise and acknowledge the unacceptability of bullying and do something constructive about some long term and positive change.



More and more cases being reported in the media and more and more Court, Commission and Tribunal cases.

Employees not prepared to accept appalling conditions and circumstances and organisations need to address generational (Boomers, X and Y) and cultural issues.


Employers who ignore reform will find themselves on the wrong end of decisions as health and safety breaches and breaches of contract are both reported and investigated.

The fulfillment of obligations in respect of well being of employees will be used increasingly as a major criterion by job applicants when selecting prospective employers.  Interviewees who currently ask about equal opportunities will in future enquire about anti-bullying policies – perhaps requiring evidence of effectiveness.


The potential for conflict grows daily and small incidents become flash points.


Bullying may thrive where:

Poor people management, practices and skills exist

—There is inappropriate management style or lack of supervision

—Overwork happens

—Role ambiguity occurs

—Poor consultation processes occur

—There are inconsistent work flows and reporting procedures

—The level and nature of training is inadequate

—There are unreasonable performance expectations

When matters turn legal, the battle is already lost.  There are no 'winners' in a Court, Commission or Tribunal.

Employees recognise that what is happening to them is not their fault as it is the bully who chooses to behave in a manner which is reprehensible.

Victims/targets have greater access to self help books and become empowered to stand up and fight back.  They learn to know what questions to ask, what evidence to collect and how to 'embarrass' executive officers.

In some cases, legal teams engage people who worked for organisations, and these people know what skeletons exist, where the skeletons are buried and who to ask about the skeletons.


To some extent the Draft Model Code of Practice for Preventing and Responding to Workplace  Bullying provides some requirement for organisations to address these by identifying common hazards/ risk factors that may contribute to bullying behaviours.  These hazard/risk factors include:

  • Negative leadership styles (includes autocratic styles and styles that are too relaxed with inadequate supervision and feedback )
  • Organisational change
  • Workplace relationships
  • Organisational/workplace culture
  • Human resources systems
  • Inappropriate systems of work
  • Poor workplace relationships
  • Workforce characteristics
  • There are work places with high levels of job dissatisfaction

Employers will not wish to be seen harbouring or encouraging bullies and there may be an increased fear of prosecution or negative media publicity.  Discomfort of facing up to an tackling bullying now will be nothing compared to the pain and penalties which await those who deny and delay.


Employers should be on notice that “bullying” and “management” are separate activities.

Bullying is compulsive, addictive and therefore predictable and foreseeable.   The effects of bullying in terms of the severe psychiatric injuries are also predictable and foreseeable.


Employers have a duty of care through legislative obligations to provide a safe working environment.

Those who refuse to fulfill their obligations will be increasingly and expensively called to account.


Isolating nature of bullying can mean that many victims remain unaware of what is happening to them and the rising tide of awareness becomes a flood.


By the time realisation dawns, the damage is done and Courts, Commissions or Tribunals are the only options for justice and redress.

Symptoms and effects of bullying often misdiagnosed or misattributed and these need to be identified, understood and traced back to their root cause e.g. where bullying thrives.


Traumatised victim/target is often physically unable to touch anything which reminds them of their experience and this can be for months or years.


Victims/targets report a ‘strange feeling’ of sitting in front of large piles of evidence, knowing the ease with which they formerly handled paperwork, but feeling paralysed, over whelmed, unable to touch, read or process any of it.

Victim/target is unable to complete paperwork for workplace injury claims or construct a case for a Court, Commission or Tribunal within allowable timeframes.


Effects of workplace bullying on home environment generally not recognised and in some cases, external service providers intervene e.g. police, mental health providers.  In some cases, little consideration may be given to the links between this type of intervention and the workplace.


Victims’/targets’ profile contains qualities such as honesty, trustworthiness, conscientiousness. Shame, embarrassment and guilt felt by victims/targets is misguided and it seems that in some cases, there is considerable 'blaming' of the target.


Bullying is a behaviour common to all human beings and exhibited by everybody on occasion.  However, the majority of people know how to control themselves, how to treat others with respect and dignity.


Workplace bullying is a severe and destructive form which involves abuse of power.  Lack of empathy and failure to understand or recognise the consequence of their behaviour on others are also part of it.

Bullies may have a desire to lead and are drawn to positions of power, management, control, trust, authority.  When demands of position exceed the maturity of behaviour skills, bullying ensues


There has been and continues to be considerable discussion about how to manage the alleged bully. 

In some cases, the target may want the alleged bully sacked, or want them to change their behaviour and stop what they have been doing.

Whilst the primary focus in organisations might be on responding to the target, perhaps consideration should be given towards helping the alleged bully either change their behaviours, or manage them out of the organisation.

Every incident and allegation should be investigated and might well be that environmental factors relating the issues such as work pressures, job, training etc may contribute.

Bullies might benefit from mentoring.  The mentor becomes counsellor, adviser, confidant, teacher and could be seen as fulfilling a parental role, especially in being able to recognise effects of behaviour on others.

A good mentor can help the alleged bully in their development of sensitivity, empathy and caring, the building of confidence and esteem and learning to differentiate between acceptability and unacceptability.

It may well be the case that the alleged bully requires additional supervision to ensure that patterns of behaviour are changing and improving, that bullying is not continuing overtly, and that the bully is genuinely committed to change and development.

There also has to be recognition of different behaviour styles and that people vary in style, expectation and the way that they react; the workplace is about teamwork, and everybody has something to contribute.

In some cases, the removal of pressures including temporary suspension of responsibility for staff may be required, particularly if other measures do not appear to work.


Serious cases of workplace bullying may require mental health intervention, particularly if it is the alleged bullying who has a mental health issue.  For example, where the alleged bully’s behaviours border on psychopathic, but there is insufficient evidence to warrant action, compulsory and early retirement may be appropriate.  However, these are sensitive issues and need to be treated accordingly.

Cost and length of period of treatment may preclude the benefit of converting the individual into a responsible person.   If the person remains in position, especially with managerial responsibility, then the employer has both a duty and a legal obligation not only towards the alleged bully, but also to co-workers who may be subjected to bullying behaviours.

The action taken in relation to a bullying manager may be compounded particularly if over a period of time they may have been rewarded with one or more promotions.  Honour and recognition by superiors are the strongest reinforcement of the habit and some bullies look for this recognition as confirmation that their actions are acceptable.

There is a need to change the ethos of the organisation from the top down, particularly when it comes to managing the complexities of issues involving workplace bullying.


Employers need to tackle managers who have a history of bullying.

Once the problem is acknowledged, a number of new cases may come to light as victims/targets will have high expectations of appropriate action.

One way forward might be for existing bullying cases to be investigated and graded.  For example, the following actions might be 'adopted' in organisations, but would need to be developed through effective consultation with all stakeholders.

Where a person has exhibited psychopathic or criminal behaviour, they shall be subject to legal proceedings and/or provided with mental health interventions and support; or

  1. In very serious cases, action shall be taken according to the employer’s disciplinary procedures; or
  2. In serious cases, where the cost of retraining would be too high for the benefits gained, the individual shall be ‘retired’; or
  3. Where the degree of bullying is classed as moderate, the person shall be subject to a program of training, counselling, supervision (tied to performance management); a move with suspension of responsibility may also be appropriate; or
  4. Cases of mild bullying will be written off subject to compliance with the anti-bullying policy and appropriate training.


Some organisations may decide to develop and implement a workplace bullying policy without giving consideration to the following.

The principal requirement is that it must be endorsed, implemented and followed consistently wholeheartedly, genuinely and enthusiastically from the top down – no exceptions. 

The primary tenets should be that bullying is unacceptable and that anyone guilty will be subjected to predetermined procedures (see points 1-5) including disciplinary action (from verbal warning to dismissal).

There has to be free and unrestrained access to an independent counsellor or investigator who is trained to recognise bullying.  Depending on the size of the organisations might be well advised to have a strong support network that could include Harassment Referral Officers, Peer Support Officers, EAP/EAS, or  with access to external support services (particularly in the case of smaller organisations).

The policy should provide victims/targets, alleged bullies and managers/supervisors with the ability to seek independent advice, information and if necessary, counselling, without fear of further victimisation simply for having sought such advice.

The policy may also indicate that if the complaint is found to have validity, the person whose alleged behaviour triggered the complaint can be moved or suspended pending a full investigation, and this may depend on the nature of the allegations.  For example, where a case of 'mild' bullying is involved and the person being target decides to resolve the matter themselves, no suspension would be required.


The policy needs to provide a clear set of procedures for investigating any complaint fairly and impartially.  The policy should reflect as to how will conduct the investigation, how it is to be conducted, time frames for investigation, who and how feedback is to be provided.

It might also be the case that the organisation will decide to 'market' a summary of details regarding the incident and investigation results to show that bullying is treated seriously.

The policy may also indicate that bullying shall be treated in the same manner as any other criminal or disciplinary offence and that natural justice and procedural fairness will apply to all parties.


The development and implementation of a workplace bullying policy will take time to implement and become effective so a long term view is required.

The development of the policy, procedures and even training requires the cooperation with unions, as in many cases, it will be the union members who are directly affected by the policy etc.

There needs to be reactive and proactive approach taken.  Simply writing a policy, posting it on the intranet will not work.  There has to be interactive training, and not just a requirement to complete online training.  Individuals need face to face contact so they have an opportunity to clarify and check their understanding of what is meant.  Interactive training may in itself be a risk management strategy to mitigate claims to show that reasonable actions have been taken.

Whilst a number of bullying cases may involve the line manager, the performance appraisal system may need revision.  Some bullying allegations stem from poor performance management procedures e.g. inconsistency in application and implementation, lack of evidence to support assessment or appraisal, tick and flick assessments.

Who is going to criticise or implicate the very person on whom your career progression depends?

Identifying the success and understanding in relation to the workplace bullying policy may require staff surveys or interviews conducted by independent persons so that there are no conflict of interest issues.

Exit interviews are seen by some organisations as a way of obtaining information from departing employees.  However a number of forums have seen increased discussion suggesting that organisations should engage external providers to conduct the process.

It is also important that executives understand exactly what the policy and procedures mean from a legal perspective.  Signing off on a policy simply in the name of expediency may mean that the policy will be used against them, particularly when litigation occurs.  As has been seen in cases relating to performance management, compliance with the policy is essential.


Anti-bullying policy is not just about catching bullies.

It’s about fostering a climate of dignity and respect by and for all employees at and between all levels.

Organisations and the people that work therein need to consider Court, Commission and Tribunal decisions that reference Codes of Conduct.  Changes to work health and safety legislation have placed and continue to place an increased emphasis on due diligence, and personal liability when it comes to all aspects of physical and psychological safety.

Having effective policies and procedures is not just an organisational requirement or obligation.  It is about making respect a way of life for every employee when in their interactions with colleagues, bosses, subordinates, customers, clients, pupils, students, patients, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, the public etc.

The policy has to address issues involving workplace culture, and in particular those workplaces where bullying is tolerated to the point of acceptance.

Organisations should conduct an assessment to identify the real problems, review those causal factors, and then develop policies and procedures to fill in the gaps.  They should also take action to change those contributing factors that increase the risk of bullying behaviours.


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