British Columbia

Jennifer Newman: Anti-bullying policies need to be followed to be effective

The bullying and harassment toolkit launched by WorkSafeBC in 2013 has contributed towards healthier workplaces, but in order to be effective, managers and staff have to build on the policies, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

A lot has changed since WorkSafeBC launched their bullying and harassment toolkit, says workplace psychologist

Some people may become easily overwhelmed or frazzled while on the job — but being highly sensitive at work it is not a disorder, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Getty Images)

The bullying and harassment toolkit launched by WorkSafeBC in 2013 has contributed towards healthier workplaces, but in order to be effective, managers and staff have to be willing to act and build on the policies.

That's according to workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman, who sat down with host Rick Cluff on The Early Edition to talk about why office bullying and harassment persists, and what can be done to stop it.

Rick Cluff: Has anything changed since WorkSafeBC began their anti-bullying initiative?

Jennifer Newman: WorkSafeBC was concerned about bullying behaviour going unchecked at work and the potential for psychological injury as a result. For WorkSafeBC, the definition of bullying is that a person knew or ought to have known, they were engaging in intimidating or humiliating behaviour towards another worker. That's on a single occasion, or as a pattern of behaviour.

Organizations had to have bullying and harassment policies, reporting and investigation procedures — as well as training on how to report and deal with bullying — in place by November 2013. A lot has changed with the advent of the legislation, but, as is always the case, more can be done.

What have been some of the positive outcomes you've seen?

One of the big ones is that the idea that bullying is something that shouldn't happen at work — or anywhere for that matter — is on the radar. The behaviour has been labelled. This helps targets give a name to their experience. 'Oh, that's happening to me,' some might say. I've also seen staff self-identify their own behaviour as problematic.  And, some get help.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

Also, employers are able to point to a policy. Something that was once implicit has been made explicit. They use the policy to explicitly talk about what is healthy and safe behaviour at work, and what is not.

That being said, some organizations still don't have a bullying and harassment policy. This puts them at risk for not complying with WorkSafeBC requirements. There is also still some resentment about the requirement adding paperwork and expense to small companies.

But, has the requirement actually resulted in less bullying, or are employees who bully, just getting better at slipping under the radar?

I've heard reports of bullying and harassment policy being used by those who bully, to target others. For example, a manager was bullied at work. When he reported the behaviour, his bully countered with a bullying allegation of his own. A subsequent investigation found the counterclaim to be vexatious.

Other times, bullies will seek out bystanders after an incident. They'll try to shore-up support in case of an investigation — or even scare witnesses in some cases. They might also try to justify or rationalize their behaviour to get support or create collusion. So some seem to comply, as long as a supervisor is keeping an eye on things.

So it seems these policies aren't getting to the heart of the matter, and the bullying continues?

Many of the bullying situations I come across have ineffective or negligent managers as part of the root cause. If managers abdicate their responsibility to set a healthy and safe tone, the policy and procedures set by WorkSafeBC will have no effect.

It's good to have policy and a process to follow. It's another thing to have leaders and managers who are willing to act.

So sometimes it's the top-performer-bully who is getting away with the behaviour. There's a fear for the bottom-line, if the boat gets rocked. But, I've also seen companies contain a bully who has strengths the organization wants, and safeguard staff. That however is just a short-term measure.

In cases where managers are ineffective, or no one is assigned a supervisory role, abuse can run rampant. For example, during an afternoon shift a workplace had no supervisor and senior staff rotated being in charge of the floor. They weren't paid anything extra for the duties and not having a supervisor was a cost-saving measure.

It worked for a few years, until senior staff started assigning the best jobs to buddies, altering schedules unilaterally to suit their own needs and their buddy's requests. It flared into a bullying scenario with threats made, staff pounding on furniture and allegations and counter-allegations of bullying being thrown back and forth.

What's your advice for increasing the chances an organization can stay healthy and not let bullying take root?

The bottom line is don't just have a policy. Take the lead and ensure staff understand and demonstrate healthy and safe workplace behaviour. Watch out for short-cuts and cost-saving measures that become long-term strategies, as these can lead to bullying.

Train your managers and leaders in how to act responsively and in a timely way to unsafe and unhealthy behaviour. Also, contain talented bullies and have a future exit strategy for them in mind, especially if their departure will hurt the company.

Recognize there's more awareness amongst job hunters too. For example a worker who had previous brush with being bullied was able to identify workplaces that were still bully-tolerant. He left during his probation, and was eventually able to land a position in a healthy workplace.

This interview has been edited and condensed

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says anti-bullying policies need to be followed in order to be effective 


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