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How to best deal with workplace bullying

11/11/2022 2022/11

Mobbing at the workplace unfortunately still occurs in many German companies, even in times of New Work, Mental Health, trust-based working hours and employee participation. " Bullying refers to a process of systematic exclusion and humiliation of another person, carried out by one or more persons. These hostile acts happen with a certain regularity [...]." (Stangl, 2022)
Unfortunately, 1.8 million German employees are still affected by this, and the number of unreported cases is certainly much higher. Often, this is still overlooked, and managers do not see it as their task to address the issue. But in economic terms alone, this results in damages to the national economy of 15 to 25 billion euros.
The above facts alone should be reason enough for companies to take action against discrimination, insults and humiliation. 

Bullying in the workplace: who is responsible?

Let's say you have a case of workplace bullying. Who should take care of it now? You might think that it is the sole responsibility of managers to combat bullying. However, it has been found that in 50% of cases, managers are actually involved themselves; in 37%, they are even the sole perpetrator. Relying on the manager alone can therefore have negative consequences, especially if it is not clear from whom the bullying originates. Consequently, it is also the responsibility of the HR department and the company management to be sensitive to the issue. In the event that an employee is actually being bullied by a manager, HR and management are the last port of call and can rectify the situation.

But how do I, as an (uninvolved) manager, recognize that an employee is being affected? People who are affected by workplace bullying exhibit a number of characteristics and symptoms. Starting with lack of concentration, experienced by some of those affected, to mistakes that may be made that have not occurred before. Some of those affected withdraw from team meetings or no longer take part in team events for fear of being bullied again. In general, victims of workplace bullying withdraw from everyday work and appear introverted, also in order not to attract attention or even to stand out. In the worst case, the victim resigns of his or her own accord, seemingly for no reason to the manager.

Dealing with bullying in the workplace

Many team leaders are still unsure how to deal with such a situation; after all, no two cases are alike. However, you can't go wrong with a matter-of-fact but empathetic approach. You shouldn't forget the emotional pressure the people involved are under. Not only that, victims are often very insecure and no longer know who to confide in. Looking the other way would be the biggest mistake at this point. The best thing to do is to talk to the person in private, ask them about their current state of mind and describe your perceptions. Avoid using the word bullying in the first step, as you should first get an overview of the actual situation. In the end, you won't know exactly what happened and, more importantly, who is involved. Listen carefully to the employee, show your sincere interest by asking questions and making intermediate comments, and get a holistic picture.

At this point, it is important not to force the victim to reveal the name of the perpetrator(s). On the one hand, this is due to the pressure that you thereby exert on the victim, and on the other hand, due to the fear that often exists of the tormentors. It is also advisable to teach the victim in cases of workplace bullying to write down and document all actions taken by the perpetrator. This makes it easier to understand what exactly happened and what, if any, consequences might be for the perpetrator(s).

Be aware that some individuals may have years of bullying experience from school or previous jobs; emotional vulnerability is high in such cases even if the incident described seems less dramatic to outsiders at first glance. It is important that the person affected feels that his or her feelings are taken seriously by you - therefore, please refrain from relativizing the situation at the first moment.

Four colleagues insult one person
Mobbing at the workplace is still a problem in German companies despite New Work, Mental Health and employee participation.
Mobbing at the workplace is still a problem in German companies despite New Work, Mental Health and employee participation.

Solving the bullying situation

If you suspect a “perpetrator” who is responsible for workplace bullying, you can have a one-on-one conversation without referring to the person involved or explaining this as the reason for the conversation. Depending on your assessment, point out consequences under labor law and make it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. With the support of the HR department, you can also bring both people together in a meeting after prior consultation and talk openly about the situation in order to define the importance and also binding nature for the joint cooperation.
However, there is also another solution approach, namely the confrontation with the team. In this case, the situation is addressed in the team without naming names. With the help of this measure, you can create awareness of the issue and also clearly formulate your opinion and how to deal with it. 

As with any other employee discussion, the principle of sustainability also applies here – sit down regularly with the employees concerned and make sure that insults, intimidation and humiliation have stopped. 

Your employees and a complementary team, both professionally and personally, are your most valuable assets as a leader. To ensure or maintain this, a proactive approach to the issue is essential.

What are the causes of bullying in the workplace?

One of the classic causes of workplace bullying is the envy of colleagues. If an employee performs particularly well and is praised accordingly by the boss, one or the other employee may become envious. Often, envy also leads to the feeling of being treated unfairly and that the other colleague is preferred. In the worst case, the person may even be new.

Another reason for bullying can also be abuse of power. In this case, the bullying starts from the manager, or at least the manager is involved. The aim is usually to increase the employee's own self-esteem by destroying that of the victim. This requires a certain personality on the part of the perpetrator. Another reason for mobbing in the workplace can be a lack of communication or a failure to communicate. Here misinformation can be spread, so that in the end it cannot be clearly determined how the bullying started. Possibly the later perpetrator felt offended by an action of the victim, which set this situation rolling. Another reason for bullying at work can be different social positions. Religion, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, but also disabilities can already be the reason for an employee to experience bullying at work. However, in this case it takes more than just a clarifying conversation with the perpetrator, but the entire corporate culture should be reconsidered.

In general, the corporate culture should be put to the test when bullying incidents occur in the company, because it has obviously given the space for such occurrences; in bullying there are not only perpetrators and victims, but also supposedly bystanders who tolerate the behavior or even laugh along at mean remarks. If these connections are not addressed, you may resolve the current situation, but the breeding ground for renewed bullying incidents continues.

Conclusions from workplace bullying

Bullying is a complex issue, especially when it occurs in the workplace. The consequences of this can include not only poorer employee performance, but also the loss of a workforce, as well as a possible poor rating as an employer. The most important thing in dealing with workplace bullying is to listen to the victims and provide clear consequences for the perpetrators. If you need support for yourself, your managers or your HR department, please feel free to contact us. Especially when not only individuals are involved or affected, the use of business coaching for self-reflection or mediation, for example, may be relevant if consequences under labor law are out of the question. Anti-discrimination training can sensitize employees and managers to microaggressions that often occur in bullying and provide them with simple countermeasures.

Sources: Mobbing-beenden.de | ver.di | DUZ.de | lexikon.stangl.eu

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