HR Professional
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By Mary Ann Baynton, M.S.W., R.S.W.


Identifying and changing a bullying culture

Bullying at work can impact an employee's psychological safety as well as the overall psychological health and safety of the workplace. It’s a complex issue and few jurisdictions have specific regulations related to bullying. This can place the onus on human resources professionals to respond appropriately.


Clear anti-bullying programs and policies are important, and in cases where bullying is demonstrably intentional, disciplinary measures are necessary. However, there also needs to be a shift in thinking as not every alleged bully has malicious intentions. In some situations, bullying may be a matter of perception and impact on the target rather than the intention of the alleged bully. Demanding workloads or a lack of emotional intelligence on the part of leaders can cause individuals to respond to stressors in ways that can be perceived as bullying without recognizing that their behaviour may be harmful to others.


Focusing on harmful behaviours

If the workplace has a toxic or bullying culture, it’s likely that many people contribute to it. In these situations, it can be useful to conduct facilitated awareness sessions where all management and employees are asked to consider some key questions intended to highlight behaviours and concerns of bullies, targets and bystanders. Answering the questions together can provide an opportunity for participants to think about how individuals and teams work together as well as how their responses to workplace stressors may be harmful to others.


Bullying behaviour

Many people engaging in workplace bullying are not aware that their behaviour is seen as bullying. Passionate people can be perceived as overly forceful in pushing ideas or expressing disappointments. Someone who has been criticized for poor performance may try to deflect attention by pointing out perceived faults of their co-workers. Managers may speak loudly or curtly when assigning work or giving feedback.


These individuals may become more aware of the potential impact of their behaviours by asking themselves these questions:


  • How do I interact with others when I am frustrated at work?
    How do I interact with the person I perceive to be the weakest on my team?
    How might I interact differently with a person I perceive to be strong and confident?
    When do I raise my voice at work?
  • When am I more passionate or animated? What might that look like to others?
    When do I refuse to engage with others at work?
    When do I expect people to simply follow directions and when do I invite collaboration?


Targets of bullying
Being subjected to bullying behaviours, regardless of the intention of the alleged bully, can have a serious negative impact on physical and mental wellness both at and outside of work.


The Canada Safety Council reports that 45 per cent of targets of workplace bullying suffered stress-related health problems including anxiety, panic attacks and clinical depression. Part of the challenge is that some people may interpret behaviours as bullying that others are able to overlook or ignore. Rather than questioning whether or not the target is “just being sensitive,” the perceived bullying behaviour needs to be addressed to reduce the risk to the alleged target’s physical and mental wellness.


To improve awareness of their sensitivity to each other’s behaviours, ask employees to consider their answers to the following questions:


  • How do I prefer to receive critical feedback?
    Have I ever shared this with those who are expected to provide feedback?
    What do I feel is an appropriate way to express frustration at work?
    How do I react when my boss or co-workers are frustrated at work?
    How do I respond to the negativity of others?
    When do I feel good-natured teasing crosses the line to bullying?
    When do I feel that criticism crosses the line to bullying?
    What do I feel constitutes disrespectful behaviour from a manager?
    What would I need others to say or do differently to believe the bullying has stopped? (Be specific and ensure the difference is objectively measureable. E.g. Rather than “be nice” you may ask that they refrain from critical or demeaning comments in front of others.)


Bystander influence

In workplaces, bystanders have the ability to influence and change a bullying culture. It is important for all stakeholders to identify when behaviour may be perceived as bullying and to agree that this is not acceptable in the workplace.


Doing this with tact and diplomacy can be challenging, especially when the alleged bully may be someone in authority. Employees should never put themselves at risk in confronting or responding to violent behaviour, but when it is a matter of intense emotions there are steps they can take to intervene.


Diffusing a situation where bullying behaviours are apparent can be as simple as saying, “Is there something I can do to help here? It seems like emotions are running high.” This works much better when all stakeholders, including senior leaders, recognize this response is an opportunity to step back and reconsider the interaction. It may not stop the intentional bully, but it can certainly give pause to most people.


Ask all employees to consider these questions to help establish their power and influence as bystanders:


  • When I see someone yelling at a co-worker, do I intervene, ignore it or just stand there?
    Would my response be different if the person who is yelling is a senior leader?
    What are the thoughts and emotions I have after witnessing a bullying incident at work?
    What could we as a group decide is a respectful, but direct response to emotionally intense behaviours that would help support a change in approach?



When addressing bullying, the conversation should be focused on helping the alleged target identify the specific and measurable behavioural changes needed from the alleged bully. This should include what he or she needs in order to feel safe and able to work with the alleged bully in a positive and professional way. Recognizing that what may be perceived as a passionate response by some can be seen as bullying by others reduces the need to “prove” who is right. The focus then shifts to what can make the interaction between the two individuals more effective.


Asking someone who feels they are the target of bullying for specific and measurable examples of what he or she would need to see, hear or experience to believe that the bullying has stopped centres the conversation on the changes needed to feel safe. These behavioural changes are then asked of the alleged bully, without the need to assign blame. Clear expectations and consequences related to the behaviour form the basis of an agreement for interaction going forward between the alleged bully and target.


The alleged bully should be advised of the required behavioural changes in an instructional rather than accusatory manner. An example might be something like, “When you interact with Sam, we expect you to always ensure that your voice is calm and that there is about three feet of space between you and her. This will help her to interact more effectively with you. Do you have any questions or concerns about doing this?”


The alleged bully should understand that emotional intelligence comprises learning how to engage and interact effectively with different personality types. If the individual is resistant to changing the perceived bullying behaviour, further disciplinary action may be required.


It is possible to avoid or improve a bullying culture, when all complaints of bullying are taken seriously and acted upon quickly and effectively.


The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers this information related to workplace bullying:

Bullying is usually seen as acts or verbal comments that could “mentally” hurt or isolate a person in the workplace.

Sometimes bullying can involve negative physical contact as well.

Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people.


Mary Ann Baynton is program director of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. Questions reprinted with permission of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

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