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Street angels, office devils

Street angels, office devils

Increased workplace bullying is costing business millions a year. Here's how to come to grips with the problem many corporates would still prefer to ignore.

Mary had been with her employer in a senior role for a number of years, capping off a successful 30-year career, when a new CEO was appointed to the business. "I had got on extremely well with the previous CEO and then they employed the one who I worked with for three years," she said. "It became three years of hell. He became abusive to me in front of my colleagues. He spent three years undermining me and setting me up for failure. There were mixed messages, telling me one thing then when you did it, it was not what he wanted. He let you know you were incompetent and incapable and too old to do that."

Although her colleagues were sympathetic, they were too scared to speak up on her behalf. Eventually, despite complaints to HR, the bullying became too much for Mary (not her real name) and she reluctantly resigned. After her attempts to have the matter mediated were rebuffed, she consulted lawyers Holding Redlich in Melbourne about pursuing her equal opportunity complaint. Her health has suffered so much she is unable to get another job and has lost her home. Mary is far from alone, despite the many deterrents and the cost of legal action.

In August last year the full court of the federal court upheld an award of about $500,000 to Peter Nikolich against his former employer, Goldman Sachs JBWere Services, for psychological injury resulting from bullying and a breach of his employment contract. And the federal government has launched an inquiry examining allegations of bullying and intimidation in the $128-billion franchising sector.

Bullying at work reveals an aspect of modern business behaviour that most of us would prefer to think was left in the schoolyard. It is deeply unsettling, costly, and potentially devastating to the victims and their employers. And many signs indicate it's on the rise.

Bullies can include customers who menace sales staff, hospital patients and their families threatening health workers, and teachers monstered by angry parents. They could be senior executives or star performers who feel quarantined from recriminations. And sometimes those further up the hierarchy are the victims rather than the perpetrators of severe bullying. And bullies can be adept at hiding their modus operandi from the boss and colleagues.

For instance, at one Sydney-based international bank, a senior executive who is the source of a number of bullying complaints has been through the revolving door at a number of banks. His latest trick is monstering the sales staff, getting right in their faces to order them to meet overambitious targets with the threat of the sack. He uses sporting analogies and would describe his tactics as coaching. But it's proving a difficult issue for the HR department and for the organisation to resolve because of personal and reputational risk.

In the public sector it is an issue increasingly on the agenda, says Karen Wilson, group manager policy at the Australian Public Service Commission. "We do get calls on the employment advisory line on the nature of workplace harassment. We are having that open discussion about what it means and what constitutes harassment and bullying. It is being discussed more, which is good."

Recent studies undertaken in Australia and other countries, according to website Beyond Bullying, show that fear of reprisal or payback is a major reason many victims don't speak up, with about 40 per cent of workplace bullying estimated to go unreported. But more research and analysis of formal complaints is revealing how and why bullies operate in organisations, and providing some clues on effective prevention, particularly as the damage and costs to business also becomes clearer.

According to ACT Workcover, workplace bullying costs Australian companies between $6 billion and $13 billion a year in increased turnover, absenteeism and legal expenses.

And it is clear that the number of formal bullying complaints made to bodies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and to law firms is on the increase. For example, the 2006-2007 HREOC annual report shows it received 1097 enquiries about employment workplace bullying, compared to 809 queries in 2005-2006.

Workplace lawyers David Shaw and Fiona Knowles from Holding Redlich are handling an increased number of complaints from women over bullying on the job, with around 10 women seeking advice in the last few months. Most of them are reporting being bullied by very senior executives or even CEOs, and in many cases have either resigned or taken extended leave from their jobs.

There could be a number of reasons for the increase of formal complaints about bullying, including more knowledge about the grounds for legal action, and publicity about some successful actions. And some workplaces, particularly government agencies, are now providing much clearer definitions of what constitutes bullying. The Public Service Act, says Karen Wilson, makes it illegal to breach the code of conduct, and information to all agencies includes the implications and costs of bullying plus how to recognise and address bullying in workplaces.

What is bullying?

Bullying in the workplace usually has a few key ingredients: consistent ostracism, setting unreasonable deadlines, denigrating comments, and harsh, uncalled-for criticism are all hallmarks of the behaviour. The advent of social networking sites has added to the bully's repertoire, with the recent example of Tasmanian politician Paula Wriedt, who was hospitalised a few weeks ago suffering severe depression. Relatives of a government driver with whom she had a brief affair allegedly used Facebook to embarrass and harass her.

No matter how the bully operates, one thing is certain - bullying is definitely not about benign teasing, says Dr Julie Cogin, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at the Australian School of Business, who has a special research interest in workplace bullying. "But it does include unwelcome social advances," she says. "It is a pattern of destructive and deliberate demeaning of people at work. So an example of what's quite common is using the silent treatment to isolate a target and encouraging others to do that. Setting impossible goals, spreading rumours about people's private life, constant criticism, withholding information, isolating people is a very common characteristic."

Cogin's latest study of 500 respondents (using quantitative statistical analysis, surveys and some interviews) found leadership behaviour was very important to preventing bullying in the workplace. "More than 70 per cent had experienced some form of bullying in the two years prior to the study: there's customer bullying and co-worker bullying. Some organisations with customer bullying say 'we will not do business with you if you treat our people like that'. And there are stories that emerge of the kind of distinct and deliberate pattern that attempts to put people down."

There is a difference between a demanding customer and a customer or client who bullies, a phenomenon that is becoming a real issue for those working in service jobs and consulting.

Bullying by customers and upward bullying is becoming more visible in many workplaces too, says clinical psychologsit Dr Bob Murray of coaching firm Fortinberry Murray Consulting, which consults to a range of organisations around the world. His work in professional services firms has frequently found that management allows bullying to continue because of a fear of repercussions. "We had one case where the bully was the client of the firm. He was one of the star performers in his organisation and allowed to bully up and sideways. Management was giving no guidelines and allowed it to happen. Sometimes management says, 'what if they leave?' But you have to look at the damage they do to the team and the cost of the behaviour. They are often the untouchables."

Bullies typically have been bullied themselves, Cogin says, and they direct the behaviour to those who are less secure or powerful. The usual reason for this is that bullies don't know how to express power in a personal way, according to Murray. Bullies, he says, rely on positional power and that's a slippery slope.

"All the studies show that bullies don't pick on people who are firm about their own boundaries. They pick on people with low self-esteem. Bullies tend to be more popular and their victims less popular. Work teams will often gel over their hatred of one particular member."

This is often the case when senior women are bullied. If you are a women going to work in an engineering company, says Cogin, your gender becomes more salient because of the ratio of females to males.

"The types of women we act for are seen as different from the rest of the team," says lawyer Fiona Knowles. "If they're seen as aggressive or go-getting [they are attacked]. It seems some of the older guys can't tolerate working alongside or reporting to these women."

Many workers today feel time poor and under pressure, so they have to influence people quickly, Cogin says. When they don't have the resources and time to ask politely they become more aggressive and demanding, which quickly becomes a pattern that has an impact on other people.

"There's this immediate gratification factor that means we want to get something done right now," she says. "The other reasons I think we might be seeing more of it is a lack of self regulation. Self-management is a primary prerequisite for managing others and it's a challenge for people in today's environment. I constantly say an effective leader is a high-quality tea bag - you can dunk them in hot water and they can hold it together. Performing without resources, influencing change and managing risk - people are struggling with it."

In some environments bullying goes unchecked because it is tacitly considered an efficient way of getting more out of people. Bullying is often seen as tough or realistic management, social researcher Hugh Mackay writes in his latest book Advance Australia Where?

"People behave quite differently at work from the way they behave with their families and friends: less open, less honest, more prepared to cut moral corners ... and more prepared to treat each other badly," Mackay writes. Until the problem is addressed on a large scale, our workplaces will continue to offer dark places where bullies can hide, he adds.

Strategies to tackle bullying

Never put two people together and tell them to work it out and think the bully will be reasonable, says Murray. You need to coach the victim and the bully. Victims need permission to stand up for themselves, without management abdicating what they should be doing about the situation. And it's important to recognise that victims usually feel guilty and that there's something wrong with them.

"The lesson is that management has to be firm," Murray says. "Unless victims can go to management and know they will look into it, there's no point complaining." Make sure the bully is never rewarded and that they compensate their victims, he adds.

Reacting to an existing bullying problem is not as effective, of course, as preventing it in the first place. With fewer people doing more in less time in most workplaces, there is an inevitable lack of attention to the warning signs of a poor culture that can lead to bullying, says Cogin. "We are not developing or empowering people to make decisions and to take it all on. It means you are micromanaging people and ... now we are so contactable and we are so available. And self-identity is so centred around your status in organisations and the passions that come with that. But there's a need to focus on corporate culture and what leadership behaviour the top team is exhibiting, and what systems and processes the organisation has, and the culture they are cultivating."

This is why 360-degree feedback is essential as a preventative. "One person I heard of was really shocked when he was called a tyrant and a bully," Cogin explains. "He had no idea of the impact he was having."

According to consultancy Hay Group, there are a number of ways to prevent the problem occurring: establish and maintain the right culture, seek feedback from all team members, take immediate action to address concerns, ensure you have feedback processes, and recognise "altruistic achievers" - employees who achieve results in a way that helps others achieve.

While some bullies may be quite deliberate in their actions, leaders are often seen as bullying team members due in part to their hierarchical power, and at times due to lack of concern for the impact of their own behaviour on others, according to a study by Hay (published in Harvard Business Review in June 2006). This has a lot to do with the leader's "hunger to achieve", which is essential for organisations to grow, but when taken to extremes can damage relationships and long-term performance. Remedies include getting senior executives to identify their over-achiever drive and change the poor behaviour it creates; and creating an environment where there is a balance between achievement of results and people's well-being.

Leaders who ignore or fail to deal with the issue are short-changing their own careers too. "In the more senior levels of organisations, social capital is such an important part of progress," Cogin says. "The knowledge you have in relationships is a really important part of your performance and progression."

Fragile High Self-Esteem

There IS no single ingredient that creates bullies, but many experts now agree that a loud and aggressive personality is not always a hallmark of such extreme behaviour. "When we talk about the personal characteristics of bullies, you would pick them as arrogant and dominating," says Julie Cogin, an academic specialising in bullying behaviour. "But it's not that obvious."

In fact, there's some evidence that insecurity is driving much workplace bullying. Often dubbed the self-esteem era, the last couple of decades have pretty much seen widespread acceptance that the more self-esteem a person has, the better.

But now researchers are questioning this analysis, and have identified a syndrome known as fragile high self-esteem.

According to researcher Michael Kernis, from the University of Georgia, a recent study found that those with fragile and shallow feelings of self-worth might compensate for their doubts about themselves by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance these feelings.

Verbal defensiveness is a hallmark of this fragile mindset and can involve lashing out at others when the person feels their opinions are being threatened, and a tendency to excessive self-promotion.

Some of the bullying behaviour he has observed in professional services firms, says Australian consultant and psychologist Bob Murray, can be partially attributed to a form of insecurity about status in a high-pressure environment.

"These are not people you constantly praise but only when they do things differently," he says. "You need to be clear on your boundaries with them."

Professionals working in firms where high workloads are pivotal to income and promotion can encounter particular problems, says Alicia Fortinberry, Murray's colleague: "Many senior people's self-esteem rises up and down according to the work coming in. And it's always someone else's fault ... if things go wrong or slow down."

Australian research by Cogin also found insecurity and poor self-worth, masked by bravado, plays a role. "When you try to come up with why they are doing this, a bully fears exposure of their inadequacy and incompetence. It's a facade they are afraid of being exposed."

Greater verbal defensiveness, Kernis' study concluded, relates to lower psychological wellbeing and life satisfaction and less-than-optimal functioning. Individuals with secure high self-esteem, on the other hand, accepted themselves warts and all, and were less likely to blame others or provide excuses when they speak of past problems.

AFR Boss, Fairfax Business Media

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