Bullying and harassment in the workplace happens far more frequently than we may realize, and often with appalling results.

Workplace harassment and bullying

Colleagues have the ability to make your work life a living hell but, in terms of the Employment Equity Act, your employer is obligated to protect you.

“Despite how it may seem, bullying and harassment are not legally the same thing,” says Marleen Potgieter, the expert behind The Training Room Online’s EE Bundle.

The difference between bullying and harassment

While bullying is mostly about power and control, usually perpetrated by those who are senior to the victim,harassment is more about not accepting or understanding differences, in which case the perpetrator is more likely to be other employees or groups of employees, with the exception of sexual harassment, where a power play often happens.

There are no statistics available in South Africa, but according to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute in the USA, 35% of the American workforce has experienced bullying and 15% has witnessed bullying.

The shocking statistic from this survey is that 72% of those bullies are bosses.

The shocking statistic from this survey is that 72% of those bullies are bosses.

So what should you do in a situation where your superior is the bully?

Potgieter suggests the following:

  1. Write out your story, and try to keep accurate notes of dates, incidents and witnesses. In both the writing and the telling of your story, be specific and use concrete language.
  2. Express your emotions appropriately. If you’re overly distraught, it could result in an assessment that the emotional problems are the cause, rather than the result of, the bullying.
  3. Provide consistent and vivid details.
  4. Stay on-topic. Only deal with those details of the bully’s behaviour that are relevant. Focus on his or her bullying or harassing actions.
  5. Emphasise your own competence. If your employers can see that you are competent, they won’t assume that the bullying is your fault.

What do you do, however, if you’re in a small company, with no human resources or anyone over your boss?

What do you do, however, if you’re in a small company, with no human resources or anyone over your boss?

“You suck it up, or you leave,” says Potgieter. “Bullies do not adjust their behaviour if they are accused. Legally, you can refer it to the CCMA, but you will end up in a completely negative environment and, chances are, more victimisation.”

Workplace bullying can take an emotional toll

Workplace bullying isn’t just uncomfortable – it can also take a serious toll on your emotional well-being. Victims of workplace bullying have been known to suffer from anxiety, depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem, among other things, long after the bullying has stopped.

A severe form of harassment is sexual harassment

“In its worst form,” says Potgieter, “harassment can cause severe trauma and is an infringement on your self-esteem and dignity. This is prohibited by the Constitution and companies have a duty to ensure that the workplace is free of bullying and harassment, to the extent that a court can hold a company liable if they haven’t done anything to address the problems.”


Companies seldom take action

Potgieter, who recently penned a book with Darcy du Toit entitled Unfair Discrimination in the Workplace (Juta), says bullying and harassment in the workplace are very common but companies seldom take action, often simply because bullying is committed by people in senior positions and employees are afraid to speak openly about either bullying or harassment for fear of victimisation.

In most cases, the bully’s seniors thinking they are charming and competent.

Cyber-bullying is also a workplace issue

Cyber-bullying is occurring more frequently in the workplace and is another way for the bully to get to their victim.

It normally occurs when the bully repeatedly tries to hurt someone through digital communication.

This usually happens through:

  • Abusive emails
  • Threats via email
  • Gossip through text messaging or chat sites
  • Posts on social networking sites

Once again, keep a record of everything that happens and then hand all evidence over to your employer. With the facts in front of them, it will be hard to ignore what is going on.

Companies need to have good policies

Potgieter says that the best way to deal with any form of harassment or bullying, is for a company to try and prevent it with good policies and an induction programme that makes it clear that bullying and harassment are taken very seriously.

“But it can’t always be prevented,” says Potgieter, “in which case a good grievance and reporting process is important”.

Bullying and harassment can cause terrible trauma and the after-effects can be detrimental to your health and well-being. Employees need to know that this type of behaviour is not acceptable and that they are protected by law.

This article was originally posted on the All4Women website.

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