Bullying in the workplace | EAPA-SA

There are several work-related interpersonal concerns that are commonly supported by EAP practitioners including that of harassment or bullying in the workplace.   Despite a significant focus in recent years on building respectful workplaces, bullying remains an issue.   In South Africa, the Internet survey that the Work Dignity Institute conducted in 2000 reported that 77.8% of South Africans feel bullied in the workplace.1  However, A low incidence in reporting distorts any estimate of bullying or harassment in the workplace and makes it difficult to measure.


Direct bullying and indirect bullying

Direct bullying is behaviour that happens on a face-to-face, interpersonal level. It includes acts of verbal abuse like belittling remarks, public humiliation, criticism, inaccurate accusations as well as threatening behaviour and intimidation (Einarsen et al., 2009; Escartin et al., 2009).


Indirect bullying is more subtle. It aims to harm people on an emotional level and to manipulate relationships intentionally (Björkqvist, Lagerspetz & Kaukiainen, 1992). Acts include:

  • Gossiping;
  • spreading rumours;
  • excluding victims from social events;
  • not informing victims of decisions that directly influence their departments or people;
  • intentionally sitting as far away from the victims as possible;
  • manipulating the information victims receive;
  • neglecting the working conditions of victims.

(Einarsen et al., 2009; Escartin et al., 2009).1


Some examples of ‘harassment’ as described in the CCMA information sheet (© CCMA) are:

  • Bullying;
  • spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone, particularly on gender, race or disability grounds;
  • ridiculing or degrading someone, picking on them or setting them up to fail;
  • exclusion or victimisation;
  • unfair treatment, for example, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, age, disability, religion, HIV status, etc;
  • overbearing supervision or other misuses of power or position;
  • unwelcome sexual advances;
  • making threats/comments about job security without foundation;
  • deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism;
  • prevention of individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.


While an individual may be at the root of bullying in some cases a number of people or an entire team may be responsible for targeting an employee.   Many organisations have policies in place for dealing with bullying, but many employees are reluctant to raises issues around bullying for fear of ruining their personal reputation, or curtailing their career prospects, or that the situation will become even worse. One of the reasons that EAP professionals are sought after confidants is that the bullied employee feels that they cannot talk to anyone in their workplace about these issues.  This leaves many employees attempting to manage inappropriate behaviour toward them at work on their own.


The outcome, in the face of workplace bullying, is that at best there will be a negative effect on the engagement and productivity of the employee; and the worst case scenario is that there will be a negative psychological impact expressed as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, as well as a possible physical impact which manifests in sleep or eating disorders.  This typically will have a negative ripple effect on the organisation and the employee’s personal life.  Many employees in this situation will make the decision to resign and move to another organisation – often without telling their employer why they are leaving.


Processes that may help identify workplace bullying or the potential for it to occur include:

  • Regular consultation with workers and, where they exist, health and safety representatives and health and safety committees, including discussions aimed at finding out if bullying is occurring or if there are factors likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying—for some businesses conducting an anonymous survey may be useful
  • Seeking feedback when workers leave the business, for example holding exit interviews
  • Seeking regular feedback from managers, supervisors or other internal and external parties
  • Monitoring incident reports, workers compensation claims, patterns of absenteeism, sick leave, staff turnover and records of grievances to establish regular patterns or sudden unexplained changes, and
  • Recognising changes in workplace relationships between workers, customers and managers.2


Dealing with bullying in the workplace is challenging.  The risk of workplace bullying can be minimised by taking a pro-active approach which includes:

  • Assisting the organisation in creating a zero tolerance policy
  • Raising awareness about workplace bullying through newsletters, blogs, and anti-bullying events
  • Providing regular mandatory workplace bullying training
  • Early identification and dealing with unreasonable behaviour and situations which are likely to escalate into workplace bullying
  • Acting promptly and investigate all complaints regarding bullying
  • Providing support to bullied employees
  • Being empathetic and listening
  • Intervening and hold bullies accountable for their actions
  • Leading by example
  • Monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the control measures



2 http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/SWA/about/Publications/Documents/827/Guide-preventing-responding-workplace-bullying.pdf

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