Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

At war in the workplace

While your job or career should give you the opportunity to develop and improve yourself, this is not the case in many instances. A number of employees are denied growth but rather broken down through continious criticism, harrassment, discrimination, threats, verbal and even physical abuse on a daily basis as a result of office bullying at the hand of a boss, co-worker or even subordinate. For many salary earners going to work is a scary thought and requires mental preperation to get through the day.
Office bullying is a topic which is still overlooked in South Africa because it focuses on the very nature of the work relationship between employer and employee, manager and subordinate as well as co-workers.
According to Robin(not her real name) justice failed her during her time of trial while working for local government several years back. The trouble started in 2011 when the woman who previously occupied the same position as Robin, but in an acting capacity, left under dubious circumstances only to return to office two years later, but this time as the new boss.
Robin was called to her office frequently where she would start out discussing work which gradually turned into subtle attempts at discrediting co-workers through gossip. This train of behaviour progressed into offensive emails, and undeserved criticism.

She later found out that the perpetrator has been spreading vicious rumours about her amongst her sub-ordinates in an attempt to isolate her from co-workers. These subtle attacks went unnoticed at first, but as she began to realise what was happening she confronted her aggressor, causing the latter to retaliate. This left Robin very disturbed and unsure about how to handle the situation.She contemplated transferring to another department and sought advice from her worker’s union, who contacted the Human Resources department, but she soon learned that her request for a transfer has been denied without a sound motive. A few months later Robin resigned after five years of dedicated service, following subjection to unprecedented disciplinary hearings, demotion and more intimidation tactics which resulted in depression.

‘Targets are independent. They refuse to be subservient. Bullies seek to control targets.’

According to Dr Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute) targets appear to be the veteran and most skilled person in the workgroup. Targets are more technically skilled than their bullies. They are in most cased the “go-to” veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and co-workers can’t stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses steal credit from skilled targets. Targets are independent. They refuse to be subservient. Bullies seek to control targets. When targets take steps to preserve their dignity, their right to be treated with respect, bullies escalate their campaigns of hatred and intimidation to wrest control of the target’s work from the target.
Targets are better liked, they have more social skills, and quite likely possess greater emotional intelligence. They have empathy (even for their bullies). Colleagues, customers, and management (with exception to the bullies and their sponsors) appreciate the warmth that the targets bring to the workplace.
Targets are ethical and honest. Some targets are whistleblowers who expose fraudulent practices. Every whistleblower is bullied. Targets are not schemers or slimy con artists. They tend to be guileless. The most easily exploited targets are people with personalities founded on a prosocial orientation - a desire to help, heal, teach, develop, nurture others.
Targets are non-confrontive. They do not respond to aggression with aggression. They are thus morally superior. But the price paid for apparent submissiveness is that the bully can act with impunity as long as the employer also does nothing.

What types of behaviour constitutes Workplace Bullying?

Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the target) by one or more perpetrators. It is initiated and driven by perpetrators’ need to control the targeted individual(s), who choose their targets, timing, location, and methods. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating and is recognized as follows:

· Work interference — sabotage which prevents work from getting done.

· A set of acts of commission (doing things to others) or omission (withholding resources from the target).

· Escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion.

· Regardless of how bullying is manifested, it is the aggressors desire to control the target that motivates the action.

· Albeit workplace bullying is evident in the public as well as private sector, it is most likely to manifest in government spheres, particularly local government, where political interference and intimidation of officials are at the order of the day. Verbal aggression, intimidation and constant criticism by local politicians are seen as acceptable weaponry as a means to achieve the desired results. The general disrespect with which local politicians treat officials are one of the main reasons presented for resignations. Officials are mere pawns in the political game to advance political agendas and anyone who dares to challenge the status quo are subjected to underhanded tactics by the perpetrators.

The abdrupt departure of the George Tourism Manager in 2014, after only three months in office, caused mixed reactions from all corners. She sites political pressure and offensive behaviour as one of the reasons for her resignation. According to her it is clear that her previous employer is not seeking an experienced professional tourism strategist and manager, but rather an obedient administrator and follower, willing to carry out various ad hoc instructions to fulfill political agendas. The disrespect and high-handedness is a culture that is ingrained over the years, and will not change in the near future.

‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’

According to San Tzu, author of the book The Art of War, all warfare is based on deception. In cases of office bullying the deception is instigated by the bully at the expense of the target. San Tzu explains the following: ‘When you are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.’
San Tzu’s tactics and those used by office bullies bear similarities in that both aim to confuse and mislead the target. Very often the bullying boss or co-worker retains a well-disposed demeanour concealing their true nature while their henchmen execute their plan of destruction. Perpetrators are highly skilled puppeteers, masters at the art of manipulation leading the target into believing false truths about themselves in order to break them down, forcing them into submission. This psychological warfare manifests through intimidation, threats, harrassment, spreading rumors, hurtful gossip, yelling, name-calling, mocking, insulting or ridiculing, unwanted physical contact or physical gestures that intimidate with the target at the receiving end.

Today, office bullies are being recognized as productivity killers and potential legal threats to employers. It bears a number of negative consequences on companies:

-Reduced productivity, efficiency and profitability.

-Higher absenteeism, sick time (Prolonged exposure to office bullying negatively impacts on the victims health.)

-Higher employee turnover.

-Decreased morale and loyalty.

-Increased costs due to recruitment and retraining.

-Increased workers’ compensation claims.

-Indirect costs though time spent dealing with bullying situations.

-Negative effects on the company’s image.

-Legal costs from employees who bring lawsuits.

-Potential increases to insurance and workers’ compensation premiums.

*Robin feels she had no support from senior management, human resources department or her union. To her it was very transparent that their reluctance to assist was stimulated by political interference, plotted from behind the scenes by an unsecure manager. What started of as petty office politics, escalated into the bigger political arena because the victim was portrayed as a “trouble maker”. Trouble makers are often perceived as a threat.

It poses the very earnest question wether employees rights in the workplace are intentionally disregarded. Namie explains that bullying is not automatically illegal. However, behaviors commonly associated with bullying often overlap with other behaviors that are illegal, such as harrassment or discrimination.
For years Leilani, an administrative officer at a Health Care facility in Cape Town, was bullied by a co-worker. This dedicated employee, once awarded for going the extra mile, had to fight many battles in order to survive attacks instigated by her aggressor. Over a year ago she started an online awareness campaign at work regarding office bullying, but due to a constant change in management, it is difficult to attend to the problem. Namie states that every employer should retain posession of an anti-bullying policy with strategies to address office bullying. Whether such policies exist or are executed by those in power, is debatable.

Amidst a culture of bullying how do those being targeted deal with perpetrators and more to the point how do one avoid being targeted altogether? San Tzu names the five essentials for victory: ‘He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’
In a local government, especially, where workplace bullying and harrassment reigns supreme, three types of employees co-exist in harmony with the perpetrator. Those who side with and are willing to fullfil the bully’s personal agenda. The second group works hard to keep the bully happy without engaging in underhanded tactics. Both the first and second group stands to gain something from their relationship with the bully. The rest simply continue their jobs and try as much as possible to stay under the radar. Bullies can quickly spot a possible threat with the potential to upstage them.

To deal with the psychological warfare of office bullying one has to familiarize oneself with the tactics used by the perpetrator. Sound knowledge is key. Know your strengths and trust your intuition, then choose your battles. Your competencies and superior emotional intellect was the motive for being targeted in the first place, so use it to your advantage. Namie suggests confronting the perpetrator and if this does not work or your employer fails to address the problem, take concrete steps to change the situation. Record incidents of office bullying, however small. This will improve your chances of building a case against the bully. Health and safety regulations dictates the provision of a safe working environment for all employees. One need not suffer - legal assistance such as the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration of South Africa (CCMA), is available. Work should not hurt.

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