Bullying in the Workplace: Doing Nothing Is Not a Neutral Act

When it comes to psychological harassment and bullying in the workplace, targets report that HR departments often make a bad situation much worse, says Jana Raver, Queen’s School of Business Assistant Professor and E. Marie Shantz Research Fellow in Organizational Behaviour.

An active researcher in the field, Raver gave an overview of harassment and bullying in the workplace in a special lecture to the School of Policy Studies.

She said recent surveys indicate that five to 15 percent of workers experience bullying. Such anti-social behaviour can come in the form of withholding key information, sabotage, and outright ostracism. It is hard to prove and difficult to fight.

Women are somewhat more likely than men to be targets, Raver said, as are above average performers. But bullies are not necessarily only supervisors. In fact, 51 percent of all targets report being bullied by both supervisors and peers; only eight percent reported being bullied exclusively by their boss.

Raver said organizations are not yet responding well to the challenge posed by psychological harassment and bullying. When asked about the result of reporting a bullying act, 42 percent of targets said it only made matters worse, 40 percent said nothing changed, and only 18 percent said it proved helpful. “The typical advice is to get out as fast as you can because it is not worth harming your health,” she said. “Unfortunately, making an official complaint in an organization without an anti-bullying policy will often make it worse and invite retribution.”

When reporting a bully to the organization’s HR department, 32 percent of targets said HR made the situation worse, 51 percent said HR did nothing, and 17 percent said HR had a positive impact. When it comes to bullying, however, “Doing nothing is not a neutral act.”

To deal effectively with harassment or bullying, Raver said there needs to be an robust enforcement process and progressive discipline. But she would prefer that organizations create environments that discourage bullying in the first place. She suggested the following measures: an explicit policy for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour; assessing interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence when hiring; conflict management skills for all employees; performance management with transparent procedures; and high-performance work practices such an empowerment and information sharing.

Psychological harassment is an area of growing legislative concern. In 2004, Quebec became the first jurisdiction in North America to include protection against psychological harassment of employees in its Labour Standards legislation.

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