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Managing Bullying and Harassment at the Workplace

August 8, 2017 | By

In the workplace, bullying and harassment happens primarily by people around you, that is, those who are above you, those who are your colleagues or those below you. Mandeep Singh, Partner – Talent & Rewards, explores the causes, outcome, legislation and solutions to help victims stand up to against this growing menace.

One of the most common and unresolved workplace issues is bullying and harassment. If you do some common study using the internet or business journals, you will find an alarming rate of atleast one in 3 employees who would have either been a victim of bullying and harassment or would have seen a co-worker getting bullied and harassed.

This article aims to highlight the undermentioned:

Bullin-Harrassment at Workplace

Identifying bullying and harassment

It is a myth that there are certain kind of companies, classified as big or small, fortune 500 or non fortune 500 which would see bullying and harassment in their workplace. It is also a common myth that there are particular levels in a company which get harassed and bullied, or people who are in the early years of their career who get bullied and harassed. There is another myth that employees who have just joined or who join new get bullied as a cultural orientation and that settles in after a reasonable period of time.

And finally there is a myth that it is women, or the economically weaker sections, or the employees form minority communities who get bullied.

The fact of the matter is, no matter how senior you are or what be your background, you can be a target and a victim of bullying and harassment.

And if you are not well prepared to tackle this threat or are totally dependent on the company or are expecting the company to protect you, you will succumb to this. Therefore,

identifying whether you are being harassed and bullied is an important part of managing and controlling it. Only if you can identify it at the right time will you be able to act in a planned manner rather than react to it.

Before we get into the symptoms, it is important to get one thing understood and in clear perspective, both you and the other individual are in the company to work and be treated with respect, both of you are using the company to attain certain goals in life, because the company is supporting that, you both continue working in the company.

From an organizational and individual perspective, both of you are expected to do the tasks assigned to you in your best possible manner and in return you get rewarded by way of salary or profits. This equation should not get impacted by how senior or junior you are with respect to your grade in the company, it should not get impacted by how important or less important your job is. Every job is important, and every individual doing a job, is expected to be treated with dignity and respect.

With this perspective in mind, you should move ahead,

feeling that you are an equal in the company, and the respect and dignity that you are to get is no less important than anyone else in the company, no matter what be your level or salary.

In the workplace, bullying and harassment happens primarily by people around you, that is, those who are above you, those who are your colleagues or those below you. In either of these, some of the following signs appear and give you a distinct indication that you are being targeted for bullying and harassment.

  • The bully or harasser will loose their temper on you more than once, it doesn’t matter whether that is done in private or public, what matters is that in their mind they have positioned you as someone who is lower in the food chain of respect
  • The bully will tell you to do your work better a little too frequently, sometimes as frequent as once a week if not higher. They may demonstrate that they are genuinely and from their heart wanting to help you, but in reality they are putting constraints in your thinking and making you believe that the way of working as mentioned by the bully is the best and yours isn’t. They are pushing you to believe that intellectually the bully is better than you.
  • The bully will normally interfere in every possible decision you take and expect that you seek approval or guidance from them, thus limiting the scope of your free thinking and creativity.
  • The bully will humiliate you more than once and in a planned manner with the intent of hurting your feelings and showing you down. Again, it doesn’t matter whether it is in public or private. The intent is, you have featured as an individual who can be played around with and tossed around without any significant resistance. If you are experiencing this, consider this a alarm situation.
  • The bully will normally try and limit your exposure to key and senior stakeholders, and will keep you away from high impact projects. The behavior you will see is the use and throw behavior, or a in-consistent behavior, when they need you for a task or a project, you will be their best pals and their best team members, however once the task is done, you will be tossed around, humiliated and treated almost as if you are worthless. You will very often get a feeling of being used and thrown.
  • Even if the bully does reward you, it will be with a sense of sarcasm and will be mostly to continue using you for some more time for a project they feel only you can do best.
  • One of the most important and tactical thing the bully will do is to take control of your credibility within the organization, you will soon realize that they will play an active role in running your credibility in the company or building it basis how you react to their bullying and harassment. If you play along, things are wonderful, if you resist, then you get the heat of it. They do this by sabotaging, telling lies and creating an environment which ensures failure for the target, therefore not only in your own eyes, but in the eyes of the company you will start seeing yourself as a failure. This by far is the most difficult part and this impacts performance, it doesn’t matter whether it is perceived or real, the point is, the world works on perceptions and not on reality, companies which can distinguish reality and facts from perception are very few.

Skilled bullies will turn the entire episode of bullying and harassment into a performance management issue. This way the entire organization stands together against the individual, who in any case has till now been fighting a lone battle for his or her survival under hostile circumstances.

Even though this is the most common method used by bullies to harass and to justify their actions, and is the most predictable reaction to any bullying relationship, there are very few companies which have processes that are matured enough to see through this, and which can actually look into this issue as a complete issue with a joint up approach having a big picture, rather than breaking them up into smaller issues and then arriving at conclusions for every small aspect which may not be linked to the overall behavior and the big picture.

Which is why when we talk about the ways of dealing with bullying and harassment, we talk about whether your company is worth the fight.

While these are some of the common behaviors that bullies demonstrate it is essential for you to gauge the relationship and consult a third party, which should not be your HR team and then classify whether you are being harassed or bullied. The HR team no matter how mature or strong, will always look at a situation from a different view, especially when it is linked to performance, after all it is also their KRA to weed out underperformers from the company.

Impact of bullying and harassment

No matter how much we believe we are mentally strong, bullying and harassment will have an impact on you, both in your personal and professional life. Not only is it important for you to understand this, but it is important for your family and close friends to understand this, as they form your environment. And it is this environment which can give you the ability to survive this ordeal.

On the personal front you start carrying it forward, which means the way you are treated in office, you start treating people close to you, especially those who are in your environment.

On the professional front, you become paranoid and hyper sensitive to the bullies actions, your aim is to not let things get worse than they are, therefore closing, responding or even reacting to the bullies requests becomes your top priority, no matter where you are or what you are doing, managing the bully becomes your top most priority and it is these things which cause you the most stress.

You become stressed and really want to avoid meeting the bully.

In short, fear of bully’s action and emulating the bullying behavior are two most common impacts on the victim.

These in turn cause underperformance, personal life discords, health related issues, team related issues and not to forget an aggressive job hunt by a dis-engaged employee.

There are many ways of minimizing the impact on yourself, and a host of them can be copy pasted from a standard stress management module, the unique aspect in a situation which is related to bullying and harassment is the ability to network,

the biggest impact of bullying and harassment is on your self-worth, and a personal or professional system that continues to support your self-worth and not let it diminish is the key requirement,

that is the reason network both within and outside the company, don’t feel ashamed in sharing in these networks what is happening with you, but, plan this strategically, you don’t want the bully to get into your network and impact your self-worth even more. Create a world which is not even remotely related to the bully and then the bullying world becomes one of the things, that will not only help you plan your next steps better, but will help you get through these days in a much smoother and stress free manner.

Standing up to the bullying

The most common response from any victim to harassment and bullying is to simply find a new job and leave, so if you are having that thought, don’t worry, and sometimes given the stage of bullying and harassment you are in combined with the company you are in, this may be the best option available.

However, if you do choose to stand up to bullying and harassment, you must be prepared to go through a fight, go through a lot of stress and go through a lot of anxiety, not to talk about putting your professional reputation at stake. This holds true for majority of the companies which work on the principles of grievance redressal mechanism versus a justice dispensing system.

Before you begin, it is important you understand how your company deals with complaints like these. At the core of dealing with complaints does the company provide a redressal to a grievance raised by an individual employee or does it provide justice.

Matured and evolved companies would provide justice and not limit this whole exercise to redressal of a grievance.

Grievance Redressed Vs Justice Dispensing

A grievance redressal system is aimed at closing the present situation, whereas justice not only closes the present issue, but also creates a change mechanism so systems, process and culture are modified in the organization for avoiding such instances in future.

The grievance redressal system works in a feudal manner, which means an employee complains, a team investigates and takes a decision. Decision taken here are more worked on the principles of confidentiality, which means, people who have been reported against or the person who has reported are not normally brought in front of each other or allowed to question each other.

The grievence redressal system works a lot on perceptions, goes for evidences which again could be perception based and will try and close the investigation with the breaking up of the complaint into many smaller complaints. That is the reason these kind of systems aren’t really useful in handling a Bullying or harassment related complaint.

On the other hand, a Justice dispensing system, will look at the entire issue as a whole, linkages are drawn between various sub-issues and conclusions drawn, a lot of focus is put here on data and perceptions of senior and powerful members are nullified in the face of data.

The justice dispensing system works on the principles of transparency, which means, the individuals are allowed to cross question evidences, give their defense and if not satisfied allowed to go for an appeal.

Protecting identity and transparency of the evidences and proceedings are two different things, there could be some situations which demand that the identify of people is kept confidential, however the process and access to data is transparent, in this system, this is never kept confidential. Any normal justice dispensing system will have a different team who manage this system as a full time job, and people who are put into this system are specifically trained to do this, it is not assumed that just because they belong to the legal or HR fraternity and they have handled many such cases they have the skill set, and above all it will have atleast 1 or 2 appeals process.

The end result of the grievance redressal system is to nullify and or punish either your statement or action or the statement or action of the bully. However, the justice dispensing system goes a little beyond, in addition, the opportunity lost, the hardship faced and the career impact are compensated for and set right.

In a customer service language, the grievance redressal system gives you a solution, whereas a justice dispensing system gives you customer delight.

It is pertinent for you to be able to face the fact of where does your company come from, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a Grievence redressal system despite whatever your company claims about or talks about in various seminars or internal policies.

harassment at workplace

Putting a stop to it and complaining

The best way and the best time to stop bullying and harassment is sometime in the beginning itself, that is the reason you should keep a constant gauge to understand whether the behavior of others has crossed into the line of being a bullied or harassed.

However, given the relationship and the complexities that harassment involves, it is always important to work with a concept of not fighting this battle alone, the entire war of stopping harassment and bullying is going to be comprising of many small battles, and you will need to win a lot of those battles to ultimately win the war.

Therefore the victory will not come by fighting alone, you need to cultivate someone else in the company who is either at your peer level or is at significantly senior level than you. This person has to be your mentor and has to be your confidant in helping you fight, not by actively coming out in the open, but by guiding you and coaching you. This is the person who should have the ability and trust to speak for you when a formal complaint is investigated by the company.

Once you have a person like this, remember one of the most important things your bully would do or would have done is dis-credit your performance, therefore a lot of stakeholders will already be thinking negative about you. It is important to put your resistance to bullying at a time that it doesn’t coincide with the performance appraisal process, and if you know the timing isn’t going to be great, then it is advisable that you start talking about the good work you have done to your colleagues and your stakeholders irrespective of formal channels of communication.

The aim is not so much to credit you, but to make sure everyone is aware that the relationship between the bully and you isn’t going on smoothly.

Given the situation you get into, it is advisable that you consult your in-company mentor and coach for the next steps, but it is definitely advisable to tackle this issue when you are still in employment and are very much in office performing your duties. The way this situation can be molded when you are not in office or have left will surprise you and make you wonder whether you were really working in the right organization.

This is true specially if the company is aiming at redressing the grievance, however, if you are pretty sure that the company is justice dispensing oriented, then you need not worry about this aspect.

The next thing you must definitely keep in mind is the complaint that you make, it should talk about specific time, context, event and the words spoken, attach evidences to give your point. This document should be one of your most important documents that can help you roll the company into action and move them to act in fairness. A thing to remember is that the complaint should be on simple paper and evidences should be as annexures. Do not send copies of the annexures to your personal email or take them home, as doing that may open up another issue of confidentiality breach on your part, however the complaint you have raised is your work, and can be shared on your personal ID.

It is important that you spend time and energy in creating this document, as this will give you the power to strike the bully with one blow.

stand up against hostile behaviour

Eventual outcomes

If you go through various research done, in majority of the bullying and harassment cases the victim ultimately ends up leaving the company, in some cases the bully is punished, however in majority of the cases the bully will just be let to go in a normal exit mechanism. Whatever be the points you put across are not going to be exactly heard as is, therefore it is important that you continue your external market search for suitable roles and put the complaint sometime in the beginning itself, do not wait till the end,

the point that this company will help protect your self-respect and act in good faith can be true only if it is a justice based company, otherwise the chances of you having your bullying case resolved in a manner you wished are as high or as low as winning a million $ lottery.

Therefore the question arises, why should someone even report bullying or harassment? The advantage is, the damage done to you is minimal, the more time you take to stand upto it and raise your voice against it, the more humiliation and damage you would have suffered, not reporting and quietly exiting the company will not change the dynamics of the bully adversely effecting your career.

Which is why, it is very important to remember that right from the start you are very clear of bullying behaviors and nip it in the bud,

a bully will normally make such advances on 2 to 3 occasion and basis your response make you a target or go scouting somewhere else. Therefore, this aspect of being ever aware of not becoming prey to a hunter is your duty, harsh as it may sound, but in the corporate world today, it is the survival of the fittest, and if you can not ward of bullies right at the start you will fall prey to a bully.

On the contrary, companies that are justice oriented will need you to provide evidence and that too without emotions, give them hard facts, with data and be open to have an face to face meeting with the bully if need be.

Justice oriented companies will evaluate all the data and not only provide you all the necessary respite, but will also ensure that the entire process is run in a transparent manner.

The key, it is advantageous if you raise the complaint when you are still in the company and doing your day to day tasks, after exiting the company, you really make it very difficult for anyone to support you.

Legislation against harassment

While this is one of the most important matter being discussed in organizations, legally, there are very few countries which provide direct laws protecting you against bullying and harassment. You may have laws against discrimination, sexual harassment, in which case you can even take legal recourse, but for pure bullying and harassment, you need to really depend on the systems of the company. If you do have a lawyer whom you can consult, it is always a good idea, as various other laws which protect you as an employee will have some or the other aspect which the overzealous company would have overlooked while treating this as a performance management issue. In which case, that little information will come in handy.

Need for a senior mentor

it is important that you have a senior mentor in the company and use their support not only to guide you, but when needed to defend you also. Equally important is for you to resist bullying behavior as soon as it starts, that way you get a role change, and not end up leaving the company with personal attacks on your self-esteem.

I know this is going to be a difficult journey, depending at what stage you are in, do form a circle of support, who can guide you and make you take informed decisions. This circle of support can be people outside of your company, but it definitely should not contain people from the HR team of your company (unless you have friends there). They are as much employees with particular tasks as you are, therefore the circle of support should include people who will guide and mentor you by keeping your benefit at the center and not the companies.

(This article was first published in

More to read

Hostile Behaviour at Workplace: How to Deal With It

Read more stories about women and their experiences at their workplace

Download the basic A Survey on Women at Workplace report

Read more articles on how to make your workplace better

An alumnus of Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, XLRI, Jamshedpur and IIM-Bangalore, Mandeep Singh, Partner – is focusing in the areas of Talent and Rewards. Over the years, Mandeep has worked with Vodafone, MetLife, Aviva, BMR Advisors, Naukri and accumulated extensive successes in the area of people management showing some unique and high impact contributions to the companies he has been associated with. He brings on the table expertise in HR Strategy, Talent Management, Leadership Development, Training & Development and Rewards. Mandeep has experience both as a HR consultant and as a corporate Human Resource professional having experience in a wide range of industries and sectors. Mandeep has a total of 17 years professional experience and has certifications in Hogans, SHL, Thomas profiling, Mercer and Hay job evaluation to name a few.
All Posts of Mandeep Singh

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One should control one’s thoughts carefully so as to direct the life towards the positive and let our thoughts shape our life. One should think constructive and work towards it and should refrain from developing and nurturing negative thoughts.