Most of us will remember the school bully. The one that, if picking on you at the time, would be the reason behind you feigning illness so you could stay home – or failing that, the sinking feeling that deepened when you approached the school gates. As adults, it can be a little hard to accept that we may be having a similar experience at work. A workplace bully can be harder to spot – there’s usually no blatant name calling – they often work in sneaky, manipulative ways. If you are dealing with that eight hours a day, five days a week, the stress and undermining can have serious implications on your mental health.

Fortunately, there is something you can do.

New Zealand has the second-worst rate of workplace bullying in the developed world, with one in five Kiwis affected by it. Recently, the Minister of Justice Andrew Little said that bullying, harassment and abuse of power were the biggest problems facing New Zealand workplaces.

Some of the worst behaviour comes from a toxic work culture where bullying is tolerated and considered normal. Some workplaces – such as healthcare, government agencies and councils – have endemic levels of bullying.

The first step to addressing this issue is to define and understand it. What does workplace bullying look like? There a range of nasty behaviours that fall under bullying. The obvious name calling, yelling, threats and intimidation we associate with the playground are actually not as common in the workplace as more covert actions. Workplace bullying involves actions that are difficult to report, such as targeting other for professional sabotage by setting unachievable assignments, receiving unwarranted criticism or being excluded from important decisions.

What motivates a bully?

According to BullyOnline, a list of resources to help with bullying, a target is often chosen because of their strengths, not their weaknesses.

This goes against the stereotype of a bullying victim being a weakling on the beach having sand kicked in his face by a muscular winner, but it’s true. The abuser is bothered by a strength they see in their target, one they do not have, so out of jealousy they find a way to punish that person.

According to Culture Safe employment advocate Joanne MacLennan, 70% of workplace bullying is top down. Colleagues who see bullying behaviour struggle to speak out or stand up for others, for fear of becoming a target themselves. New managers were often the worst culprits, targeting popular and successful staff as a way of stamping their authority and establishing seniority.

The Citizens Advice Bureau explains that bullies are often insecure people with low self-esteem (which they hide well) and their targets are usually competent, honest and independent individuals who get along with colleagues. “These are the very characteristics which the bullies feel they themselves lack,” CAB says.

If you’re the victim of workplace bullying, it can be tough to understand that you’re not being targeted because of your actions, appearance or personality traits. A bully is motivated by their own lack of self-esteem. They feel threatened by a highly competent colleague or by seeing someone else being praised by a manager.

Bullying can be a tactic to hide incompetence. Bullies see their victims as a direct threat and their actions are an attempt to hide their own inadequacies from colleagues and managers.

How do bullies choose their targets?

Anyone in your workplace could be a bully. Bullying can occur in a range of different workplace relationships – for example, between a manager and an employee, an employee and a client, or among colleagues.

Bullying is motivated by the insecurities and inadequacies of the bully. Any colleague who – usually unwittingly – threatens to highlight or expose those failings is a potential target. Because bullies are opportunistic, they may take out their insecurities and frustrations on vulnerable people – new hires who want to make a good impression, younger or older colleagues who are worried about seniority or job security, or people less likely to speak out.

The targets of workplace bullies often (but not always) share certain personality traits. These may include:

  • being popular around the office.
  • having a fun, vivacious personality and a sense of humour.
  • being praised or promoted for their work.
  • having a good reputation for integrity.
  • apologetic when confronted with an accusation, even if it’s not truthful.
  • being awarded additional responsibilities.
  • offering to help others with their projects.
  • avoiding office gossip and other malicious behaviour.
  • being known as someone who’s helpful and good to talk to.
  • taking advantage of perks, such as flexible working arrangements.

Understanding the impact of workplace bullying

In a recent article, Greg Dearsly, national manager for the New Zealand Institute of Safety Management, said, “There isn’t enough being done in New Zealand to properly address incidents of workplace bullying and harassment. There needs to be a more structured approach to help people in unsupportive work environments.”

Dearsly points out the workplace bullying and harassment are characterised as hazards under the Health and Safety at Work Act, which means that employers have a legal responsibility to manage risks and prevent harm. Employers need to be aware of the mental health and productivity impacts bullying and harassment can have on employees.

While no statistics are currently available for New Zealand, Australian figures show that bullying costs the country’s economy between $6-36 billion every year in lost productivity, or between $17,000-24,000 per individual bullying case.

“Workplace bullying is growing into a significant risk and is joining the many other issues health and safety professionals advise on everyday,” Dearsly said.

Worksafe New Zealand released a bullying prevention toolbox containing guides resources to help individuals and businesses deal with workplace bullying.

How to recognise workplace bullying

Legally, for behaviour to be considered bullying, it needs to involve repeated actions (not just a single incident) which are carried out with the intention to cause fear or distress in order to assert dominance or gain power.

We’re all familiar with the kind of bullying seen on the school playground, and we can recognise yelling and violence as unacceptable in the workplace. However, most workplace bullying is deceptive and hidden from view, making it much harder to identify.

Also, because many bullies are managers who are respected by others, you may feel trapped and lonely, as though you’re imagining the situation. Toxic workplace cultures also mean some bullying, harassment, and discrimination are actively encouraged.

You may be experiencing workplace bullying if:

  • Your work is being constantly nit-picked and faults (even minor ones) blown out of proportion.
  • Ideas, discussion points and criticisms you raise are always discounted, ignored, or shot down.
  • You’re constantly being put-down, teased, belittled, or insulted, especially in front of other colleagues.
  • You overhear or receive comments about your appearance, race, or culture.
  • Your achievements and contributions are ignored and unacknowledged, or credit is given to others.
  • You’re treated differently from other colleagues.
  • Work is taken away from you, or you’re overlooked for work that fits your skill set.
  • Requests you make are constantly refused, often with no reason given.
  • Every aspect of your work is monitored, supervised, and picked apart.
  • You receive threats or implied threats about promotions, duties, or your job security.
  • Your role is changed or duties removed suddenly and without reason, or the
  • Your given tasks and projects with impossible targets.
  • You’re given constant distractions, busywork, and other obstacles that prevent you doing your job.
  • You’re excluded from professional development or promotion opportunities.

According to research released by advocacy group Culture Safe NZ, workplace bullying can be gendered. Men are more likely to experience personal attacks – being yelled at or ridiculed in front of others, threatened with violence, or humiliated in other ways. Women are more likely to be sabotaged, by being given unachievable assignments, given unwarranted criticism, or by being excluded from important decisions.

What to do if you’re being bullied at work

If you believe you’re experiencing workplace bullying, there are several steps you can take.

Set limits on what you will tolerate

The first step is to decide when the behaviour has stepped across a line from being tolerable to making your work impossible. This line will be different for every person, but if the quality of your work is suffering, you’re missing out on opportunities, you feel insecure, harassed, depressed, or afraid to go to work, and you’re noticing signs of stress in your everyday life (difficulty sleeping, irritability, health problems), then it’s probably safe to say the situation is untenable.

Once you’ve set this limit and the bully crosses it, the first step is to confront them about their behaviour. This can be scary, so it’s worthwhile practicing the conversation with a friend first.

Describe the actions the bully has been exhibiting. Avoid adding opinions or saying how these actions make you feel, as the bully isn’t concerned about your feelings. Simply describe exactly what they do. Then explain how their actions are impacting your work – that they’re wasting your time (and therefore the company’s time, etc).

Finish by explaining that you will not be putting up with this behaviour in future, and that if it doesn’t stop you’ll be making a formal complaint. Do not stoop to their level by calling them names or engaging in verbal or physical confrontation. Just state your case calmly and firmly and leave them to decide on their course of action.

Confront the bully when they act out

This is a tough practice, and many people will avoid it altogether. But if you confront a bully about their actions in the moment, you may be able to stop their behaviour. In their popular book, I Hate People, Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon explain that bullies are, “only effective when they’re on solid ground. Ground that you can take away. Remember, you’re the adult dealing with a tantrum. No wise parent give into a child’s fit because it just leads to more fits.

The next time someone speaks over you in a meeting with criticisms, ask what they recommend instead, or suggest they keep their feedback until the end of your presentation. This acknowledges their behaviour is not okay and lets others know it shouldn’t be tolerated.

Document the actions of your bully

Keep a log of incidents relating to your bully, including the date, time, and details of each incident. If you receive emails, notes, or text messages, keep these as well. It’s worthwhile to note a rough transcript of conversations and if any colleagues witnessed the exchange.

Documentation helps you to see patterns and understand that bullying really is going on. If you need to raise the bullying with Human Resources, then your documentation will go a long way toward seeing fast results on your behalf.

This is especially true if you can demonstrate the bully’s impact on business results. Marianne Worthington, the founder of Work Warrior – a business that helps companies build healthy workplaces – explains that she advises clients to go to management with three clear, documented incidents of bullying behaviour. “If the incidences can prove that quality of work was affected, then that’s even better. Once someone has three examples, it should be enough to show a pattern.”

When documenting, follow these tips:

  • Include dates and times.
  • Write the exact conversation/words spoken.
  • Include a description of gestures and body language.
  • Include names of witnesses.
  • Leave out details of how the incident made you feel.
  • Save email / SMS message chains.

Look after yourself

If you’re experiencing bullying in the workplace – especially from a manager – it’s easy to blame yourself. Maybe you’re not good at your job, or people don’t like you? After all, if they’re an authority then what they say must be correct.

Not so. Bullying is not your fault, and it is never deserved. Believing what they say is exactly what the bully wants. If you’re not performing at work, there are proper methods in place for those discussions.

Take your mental health and stress levels very seriously…

Being under a great deal of stress because of workplace bullying will lead to physical and mental ill health- and no one can tolerate a high amount of stress without it affecting them in serious ways, so you owe it to yourself to address any workplace bullying seriously.

Workplace bullying can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety. You may notice symptoms of stress, such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, weakened immune system, agitation and moodiness, chest pains, nervousness and shaking, an inability to focus, and poor judgement.

Working to resolve the situation may also improve your stress levels. You can also make sure you get support from friends and family members, and spend your free time doing activities you enjoy. You can access some more of my practical stress reduction tips here.

Making a formal complaint

Your employer should have a formal policy for investigating complaints of bullying, discrimination, and harassment.

You may wish to speak to your manager about dealing with the issue informally. This means the manager will talk with the bully about their behaviour and may take other action, but you won’t be making a formal complaint.

Otherwise, you can make a formal complaint to your manager, another manager, HR, union, health and safety representative, or other leader. If your company has a formal policy and process, this should be followed at this point. You can also express your preferred outcome (for example, that the behaviour stop, the you or the bully be transferred to another department, or that disciplinary action be taken against the bully).

If your company doesn’t have a formal policy, you should still raise a complaint. In your complaint, make everything as clear as possible, including your documentation and log. It’s best to have your complaint in writing.

Your company will investigate and determine if bullying, discrimination, or harassment have occurred. They should then inform you what action – if any – will be taken.

If you’re not happy with your employer’s response

If you’ve made a formal complaint to your employer and you’re not happy with their response, you can take further action if you wish.

The Human Rights Commission provides a free, confidential mediation service. For more information about this, see the Human Rights Commission website.

Raising a personal grievance. This involves taking your employer to court. Speak to a legal professional for advice about this course of action.

Harassment and discrimination, which can be part of bullying, have their own legal remedies.

Bullying is a significant hazard in New Zealand workplaces that has a profound and lasting impact on productivity, physical and mental health. While companies have a legal responsibility to prevent and respond to bullying, we can all do our part to ensure bullies aren’t able to thrive. Building a positive company culture, calling attention to bad behaviour, and supporting others who are dealing with bullying will help to create positive change for New Zealand’s workforce.

If you are dealing with a workplace or any other form of overwhelming stress, have a look at my blog entry: Practical Stress Management Tips. Alternatively, if you want to ask me a question please do so via the Contact Page on my website.