Workplace bullying a topic at HR conference

Although many people may not think bullying in the workplace is something that happens in the Cayman Islands, a presenter at the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resources Professionals’ 10th annual conference said it most certainly does and that it can have significant impacts on businesses.  

 

As any parent of a teenager in today’s world knows, bullying is a real issue in schools, even here in Cayman. But many people wouldn’t think that bully also occurs in the workplace here. 

“People ask, ‘Is it really happening here?’ Yes it is,” said Cindy Blekaitis, programme manager for the Employee Assistance Programme, on the first day of the 10th Annual Conference of Cayman Islands Society of Human Resources Professionals at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on 9 May, 2013. 

Blekaitis said that a scientific study conducted in 2008 by Dr. Judy Fisher-Blando in the US showed that 75 per cent of employees surveyed had been affected by workplace bullying either as a target or a witness. Although no similar scientific study has been conducted here in the Cayman Islands, many people come to the Employee Assistance Programme to discuss instances of workplace bullying here. 

 

Definition  

There are different definitions for workplace bullying. Blekaitis said the international definition included “the repeated mistreatment of one or more employees with a malicious mix of humiliation, intimidation and sabotage of performance”. 

“It is persistent and part of a pattern, but it can also occur as a single incident,” she said, adding that it did not include the occasional rudeness of a stressed-out supervisor or a professional conflict between two equally powered employees.  

The Cayman Islands National Workplace Development Agency has its own definition of workplace bullying, as incorporated into the Labour Law. 

“It defines bullying as offensive, 
intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour; an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient,” said Blekaitis, noting that the bullying or harassment could be by an individual against another individual or involve groups of people.  

“It may be obvious or it may be insidious,” she said. “Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.” 

 

Facts  

Blekaitis, who worked as a counsellor and educational facilitator at the Women’s Resource Centre before joining the Employee Assistance Programme, said there are similarities to workplace bullying and domestic abuse. 

However, workplace bullying does have its own characteristics. 

“It’s more common that sexual harassment or verbal abuse,” Blekaitis said. “It is the deliberate, hurtful, repeated mistreatment of employees and is driven by a desire to control.” 

Workplace bullying can exist at any level of an organisation, from management to employee and even peer to peer Blekaitis said. 

“It can make the entire work environment toxic.” 

In most cases of workplace bullying, the bullies and the targets are of the same sex. 

“I’ve read a statistic that said that 80 per cent of the time when women are the bully, it’s another woman that they are bullying,” she said. 

 

Recognising bullying  

One of important steps in dealing with workplace bullying is recognising bullying behaviours, Blekaitis said. 

Sometimes is comes through comments that belittle an employee’s contributions. 

“A bully might say something like. ‘Thanks for the report, but I could have done it faster myself.” 

Bullies might also constantly remind their targets of past mistakes, even if they happened a year or more ago; they might steal credit for ideas or work done by their target; they might also withhold necessary information or deliberately give them wrong information like the wrong time or place for a meeting. 

Other signs of bullying are under-assigning work or the removal of areas of responsibility without cause. 

One bullying target spoke about this when consulting with the Employee Assistance Programme. 

“I have 15 years experience and they give me assignments for an intern,” one target said. 

Bullies will also sometimes block requests for training, leave or promotion. In other cases they might blame, scold or criticize their target’s work ability and belittle their opinions. Blekaitis said a bully might do something like roll his or her eyes at a meeting when their target is expressing an opinion, as if to say, “Is that person talking again?” 

Sometime the bully will play off the bullying behaviour as a joke. 

“It may seem like harmless teasing,” she said, noting that there are two different kinds of teasing. “Good teasing is when we can all have a laugh together. Bad teasing is where the target feels belittled.” 

Sometime bullying behaviours can involve veiled threats about a contract or work permit renewal. Bullying can also involve yelling or screaming at a target; micromanaging the target’s work; conveying constant and unfair criticism; spreading malicious rumours and gossiping; and an effort to isolate the target from other employees. 

Blekaitis said that often, nothing the bullying target can do will make the bully happy. 

“Everything is a problem,” one victim of bullying told an Employee Assistance Programme counsellor. “If I come in early, I get asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ If I stay late… I hear, ‘Can’t you get your work done?’ If I leave on time… it’s, ‘You’re not… a team player; you need to be more flexible.” 

Bullies will sometimes make unreasonable demands, constantly change work guidelines or establish impossible deadlines. In one case, someone was given an assignment and then sent an email 15 minutes afterwards to ask if the assignment was completed yet. 

Sometimes, the bully will even deliberately try to interfere with the completion of the target’s work. 

“The bullying target might be on a deadline and the bully will ask to set up a meeting to discuss something that isn’t very important or that is going occur at sometime down the line.” 

Bullies will sometimes apply made-up rules to their target; invade the privacy of their target by spying, stalking or tampering with their personal belongings and work equipment, Blekaitis said. 

In some severe cases, bullies will even physically abuse their targets or threaten physical abuse. 

 

Effects 

Workplace bullying has negative effects not only on the target of bullying, but also on those who witness it and on the business itself, Blekaitis said. 

Effects on the target can include anxiety; depression; a laundry list of physical health disorders; poor concentration; substance abuse; lowered self-esteem; relationship troubles; absenteeism and low work productivity. 

“Productivity could decline up to 40 per cent when workers are distracted by bullying,” she said. 

The lower productivity is only one of the many costs of bullying to the employer. 

Bullying has a direct effect on employee retention, causing higher employee turnover and recruitment costs.  

“Thirty per cent of bullied employees will resign from their jobs and 20 per cent of those who witness bullying will also leave the organisation,” Blekaitis said, citing a bullying study done in the US. “That’s half of your employees.” 

Workplace bullying also harms a business’s reputation, she said. 

“We’ve all heard about certain departments or certain companies, where people say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to work there because of so and so,” said Blekaitis, noting that sometimes the reputational damage is enough to drive customers away from the business. 

In some severe cases, workplace bullying, if it persists long enough unchecked, can lead to retaliation that reaches levels of aggressive and violent behaviour. 

“If you look at the statistics, in a lot of the shootings that happened in the workplace [in the United States] the person was a target of bullying who finally had enough and snapped.” 

Bullying can lower the morale of an entire company, Blekaitis said. 

“Tolerating workplace bullying makes it impossible for [a business] to reach the goal of treating all of its employees with respect and dignity,” she said. “If you tolerate workplace bullying, you’re condoning it.” 

Blekaitis said that the best method of preventing or stopping workplace bullying was through training and education, something which the Employee Assistance Programme offers. 

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Cindy Blekaitis, left, the programme manager of the Employee Assistance Programme with Jackie Myles, the co–chair of the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resources Professionals’ 10th Annual Conference at The Ritz–Carlton, Grand Cayman.

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The Employee Assistance Programme’s Eva Appleyward, left, speaks with Colleen Williams during at HR conference’s ‘Marketplace’ area.

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