By Wendzile Zwane (Guest Writer)

Most people think that workplace bullying is about making fun of a person or making inappropriate jokes and that it is a short-lived experience. Some people also tend to think that workplace bullying does not have any financial implications at all. Yet, workplace bullying is diverse, can be long-lasting, occurs for different reasons, and can have financial implications. But, what is it, how is it perpetuated, and what can we do about it? 

Effective bullying teaches people not to speak out, not to apply critical thinking, and, subsequently, not to fulfill their potential. Workplace bullying creates a toxic culture where adherence, applying personal judgment, and performance is not so much for the ambitious, but for the “naive”.

One of the ways to highlight inappropriate behaviour is to teach others that there are consequences to inappropriate behaviour. Consequences can include job loss, demotion, and more. Bullied employees may suffer a loss of opportunities for professional growth, being side-lined, being made a scapegoat, and other forms of victimization.  Some typical examples of bullying include repeatedly making unfounded claims about an employee, making an employee the scapegoat for all the department’s mistakes, as well as publicly rebuking them for such. It can also include deliberately excluding the employee from important tasks or even threatening them.

Once employees experience the above, their behaviour and attitude change. We, therefore, see a lot of attrition and increased late coming as staff battle with a toxic workplace. Consequently, few employees feel free to express their opinions on work objectives and topics. Personalities do not come through as easily out of exhaustion or a fear of standing out. You begin to hear it in people’s speech too, for example, people will ridicule those who have the desire to excel and grow. In this unfortunate scenario, no one wants to put their hand up, be proactive, or be ‘seen or heard’. As a result, a company’s performance levels take a nosedive and that company may also experience a high staff turnover.

Out of fear and the need for primal basics such as peace of mind and job security, employees are more likely to behave in a manner that is less likely to draw attention to themselves, essentially doing the bare minimum required. When this kind of self-preservation is greater than the success of a department or company, and people are in survival mode, it becomes easier for malpractice and sub-standard performance to spread and subsequently become part of the company culture. There isn’t anyone to guard against it.

Therefore, one of the ways to enable malpractice is to first coach people into being afraid of doing the right thing. Once the fear is instilled, there are fewer times when resources (financial and human) will be protected. Custodians of policies and procedures will most likely acquiesce to avoid the consequences of applying personal judgment; now leaving the company and its people vulnerable. 

Bullying is therefore seldom about the individual on the receiving end, but rather about something else completely. But at this point, what can companies do to reverse workplace bullying?

Employers can take skills such as active listening, assertiveness, critical thinking, and confidence more seriously. These kinds of attributes in a team indicate that people can speak without fear, can share their opinions openly, and can be trusted to implement the correct and desired company policies and procedures because they believe they can. Employers should expect these attributes and more from their people because how else will assets and people be kept safe unless they are spoken for clearly and assertively? Spoken without doubt, hesitation, or fear.

Instead of silence, employers can be proactive in encouraging empathy and compassion in the workplace. Environments where people do not have to survive; they can and will be heard. Employers can decrease top-down communication and increase openness; teaching people that all opinions matter. This will help decrease the assumption that one individual or individual is always correct. And employers can also increase diversity; creating intellectual expansion.

Indicators such as silence in meetings, drop in performance, attrition, and poor adherence should be seen as red flags. And they should encourage us all to think deeper and do better.

Wendzile Nokwanda Zwane is a University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate in Industrial Sociology and Clinical Psychology. Wendzile is a Human Resources expert. She is also a TedX Speaker: The Power of Confidence in the Workplace. She is also a YALI Alumni: COHORT 12, where her studies focused on Public Management and Governance.

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