What you can do about bullies in a small business

By  Andrea Beattie

Bullying in the workplace takes a toll on the mental well-being and productivity of workers, and it’s also costing the Australian economy more than $6 billion annually.

The Productivity Commission estimates that the cost of a workplace bullying case averages between $17,000 and $24,000; far higher when compared to payouts for “traditional” physical injuries.

And it’s happening across all levels of business, with a 2012 report by Safe Work Australia showing that more than 2000 workers across various positions suffered from mental stress caused by workplace harassment and/or bullying.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated “unreasonable behaviour” directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety. Unreasonable behaviour is behaviour that a reasonable person having regard to all circumstances would expect to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten a worker.

– Bully Zero Australia Foundation

In response to the growing need for action, the Fair Work Commission launched an anti-bullying jurisdiction in 2014 that now allows a worker who believes they have been bullied at work to apply for an order for it to stop.

And it seems to be working with the FWC quarterly report for 2014-15 showing it dealt with 6300 phone inquiries related to bullying and processed 694 order applications — nearly 60 applications per month.

As most small business are without the resources of a fully fledged HR department, they need to be able to recognise bullying and respond to worker’s claims.

Small business owners need to be equipped to handle bullies

Recruitment expert and founder of Agency Iceberg Anna O’Dea told The Huffington Post Australia that inappropriate behaviour should never go unchecked, even if it meant causing disruption within a small team.

“Often colleagues can feel intimidated by others’ statements and will therefore suffer in silence and go along with the ‘joke’ in order to avoid conflict,” she said.

“As a leader, it’s important to say to the team, ‘hey guys, a reminder that we don’t talk like that. Let’s not make jokes at other peoples’ expense’.

“This is a subtle way to say to those who are making the statements it is not OK while standing up for others who may be affected. It also illustrates to those affected that they have an ally.”

O’Dea, who has had to deal with a bully within her small business, said managers and owners should have an anti-bullying policy that every employee is aware of when they sign on.

“Encourage your team to be open about your anti-bully policy so they can be empowered to act and stand up for others when you are not present,” she said.

“Action is one of the strongest ways leaders can communicate bullying is not tolerated. If employees know there is a risk that they will receive a written warning for inappropriate behaviour it is a strong deterrent. Bullies are encouraged by inaction.

Who are workplace bullies?

Clinical Psychologist Keryl Egan believes there are three types of workplace bullies:

Accidental bullies: Emotionally blunt, aggressive and demanding.

Narcissistic bullies: Grandiose and tend to become energised when things don’t go their way (known to be destructive and manipulative).

Serial bullies: Target a number of workers in succession and are intentional. Serial bullies are systematic, organised, charming, authoritative, aggressive, dominating, fearless, shameless, deceptive, impulsive, chaotic, stimulus seeking and excellent at imitation and mimicry.

– Bully Zero Australia Foundation

“One small way to do that is to stop small talk about others when they are not in the room and say ‘stop that — we do not speak about others that way’.”

While applauding initiatives such as the Bully Zero Australia Foundation, O’Dea said Agency Iceberg also supports Leading Ladies, a project through which women in senior leadership positions speak out about issues including bullying, sexism, homophobia and racism at work.

If you are being bullied by the business owner or manager, you can consult your union if you are a member or contact the Fair Work Commission.

Bullying leaves a lasting impression

General manager marketing for tourism agency Visit Ballarat Louise Laing told HuffPost Australia that she experienced bullying 15 years ago while working in an entry level role at a startup communication agency.

“In my first professional role, I had a mid-level manager that was horrible to work with,” she said.

“She was manipulative, and her daily misuse of power involved her withholding critical information, which meant no matter what I did, I was always underprepared, always producing incorrect work, always missing meetings.

“I thought if I could change the way I did things, if I could just be a bit quicker, or just be a smarter, or just a bit more organised, the manager would change. I was wrong.” Louise Laing

“Looking back now, it’s slightly ironic as we worked at a communications company, and she stonewalled me on nearly all communications. Looking back now with the knowledge I have around the issue, I would say it was verbal and social bullying.”

Laing said she regrets not saying anything at the time she was being bullied.

“It was a startup, (so) everyone was going at a million miles per hour, and I didn’t want to ‘waste’ the (owners’) time coming to them with what I saw as ‘my little problems’.

“I thought if I could change the way I did things, if I could just be a bit quicker, or just be a smarter, or just a bit more organised, the manager would change. I was wrong.”

As a manager now, Laing said the experience made her more aware about bullying in the workplace.

“It also taught me exactly what I did not want to be as a manager,” she said.

“Bullies only have power when the person receiving the behaviour stays quiet about it,” she said. “When you take action and talk about a bully’s actions and behaviour, it turns their misuse of power into a problem.

“Problems can be solved. The company I work for now has about eight different tools we use to constantly check in with people, give them a chance to give feedback and communicate things that are on their mind.

“The tools are the means by which we can nip things in the bud quite early.”

This article first appeared at HuffPost Australia