Of bullies and service implications


Those who know me know that I am not the reserved type. I have never been. I will never be. It is just not in my nature. More than a decade ago, a marriage counsellor—after taking me through a personality test—found that I was as choleric as they come. I tend to take that energetic attitude to life, and business.

For me, the place of work—because we spend greater percentage of our waking lives there—must be a fun place. This means that pranking, teasing, etc. are permitted as long as they do not affect work. The first place I worked, right after my National Service, was quite a boisterous place and I loved it. Colleagues should be able to have fun while keeping our eye on the money. That is my outlook to work.

However, one thing I do not countenance is any attempt at bullying. Granted there is a fine line between a harmless prank, a joke, even horseplay and outright bullying. Nevertheless, it is expected of each and every employee to know where to draw that line. Workplace bullying has been described as “a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in the workplace that causes either physical or emotional harm.” The key word in the above definition is the word ‘persistent’. Workplace bullying is not a one-off act. It is something that happens over a period of time.

Someone reading this article might wonder what the hullabaloo is all about regarding workplace bullying. For some, workplace is harmless fun, nothing more. The truth is that workplace bullying is a very serious issue. As a matter of fact, workplace bullying is so serious that there is actually a Workplace Bullying Institute in the U.S. state of Washington. The mission of the Institute, incorporated in 1997, is to research and understand, to educate the public and to teach the prevention and correction of abusive conduct at work.

Some of the ways by which workplace bullying takes place are practical jokes purposely meant to embarrass the individual, humiliation in front of colleagues, overly harsh and often unjust criticisms as well as constantly being denied certain requests for no apparent reason. There are times when employees are wrongfully blamed for any negative thing that happens in the organisation.

Workplace bullying is one of those unfortunate things that affect organisations but does not get talked about often because it stays hidden. Workplace bullying can go undetected for years while still eating away at the harmony in the workplace. And as it eats away at the sanity and sanctity of the office space, it equally destroys the quality of the organisation’s output. Workplace bullying is a slow poison that destroys the workplace from within—a silent, undetected assassin destroying the very fabric of the workplace.

It has been found that the effects of workplace bullying are more pronounced in certain industries than others. In industries where employees are very dependent on their superiors for better remuneration or better conditions of service, the effects of bullying can be more pronounced than in settings where the employee is generally more protected by the internal systems, structures and regulations.

Also in settings where contact between employees is not very often, the effect of bullying might not be as pronounced as in settings where employees are always in the same environment. Because, by its very definition, workplace bullying must occur over a certain period of time, it needs people interacting often for it be effective.

Studies have found that one of the industries where workplace bullying occurs quite often is the hospitality industry. In that environment, characterised by low-paying jobs, low-level employees are at the mercy of their superiors and if those superiors turn out to be bullies, then there is a real problem.

Another industry where workplace bullying happens more often is the airline industry. For flight attendants whose remunerations are dependent on the number of flights they get as well as the length of the flight, the typical flight attendant is at the mercy of superiors who determine these perks. If those wielding such power turn out to be bullies, then the receiving party is in big trouble.

It is important to note that workplace bullying can be both vertical (from superiors to subordinates) or horizontal (from one colleague to another). Both can be devastating to the well-being of the bullied but in many cases, vertical workplace bullying can be much more injurious. It is easier to report a colleague who is a bully to a superior. However, if the bully wields power over the head of the bullied, the problems can become very grave.

Workplace bullying can start out as pure fun by someone who does not know any better. Some people are, by their very nature, bullies. These are those who might not see anything wrong with what they are doing. But sometimes there are more devious reasons by the bullying. For instance, superiors whose sexual advances might have been turned down can resort to bullying as a punitive measure. Also bullying can arise from a superior, or even a colleague, who feels his or her position in the organisation is under threat from the target.

The science behind the deleterious effect of workplace bullying is that the bullying first leads to emotional exhaustion which, in turn, leads to burn out. This is one of the findings of a study done among some full-time 4-and 5-star hotel employees in North Cyprus. The study found that workplace bullying caused increasing distress in those that were bullied. This eventually leads to emotional exhaustion and if this is not corrected, would lead to the burnout of the employee involved. The study, titled “Workplace Bullying, Psychological Distress, Resilience, Mindfulness, and Emotional Exhaustion” was published in a February 2019 edition of the Service Industries Journal.

It is widely acknowledged that employees who are suffering from emotional exhaustion and, by extension, burnout do not make for good employees. When an employee is emotionally-exhausted, he or she tends to make a lot more mistakes on the job. the one’s relationship with colleagues will also suffer. He or she might become morose, withdrawn or even become anti-social. Workplace bullying therefore has an effect on internal customer service.

And if the employees being bullied are at the front line, interfacing with customers on a regular basis, then the effect of workplace bullying can hit at the quality of that employee’s performance vis-à-vis external customer service. A frontline employee being bullied by a colleague or superior might turn their frustrations on customers. The bullied front line employee might become easily irritable and would snap at customers at the slightest provocation. There are many reported cases of emotional imbalance among stressed-out frontline employees.

Even for bullied customer-facing employees who are able to maintain their cool when it comes to dealing with customers, the effects of the bullying can have serious health implications. These employees might become ill more frequently as the psychological stress of working in a toxic environment begins to takes its toll on their immunity. Staff taking extended days off from work due to ill-health as well as high employee turnover also affect productivity.

Every business manager knows that if customer service, both internal and external suffer, then the bottom-line of the organisation will also begin to suffer. One then can safely surmise that dealing with workplace bullying and its deleterious effects makes business sense. Putting in place measures to deal with the effects of workplace bullying can mean the difference between a profitable business and a struggling organisation.

In dealing with workplace bullying, one of the first thing to consider are the individuals involved. It is important to note that the effects of workplace bullying vary according to the personalities of the employees. There are some employees who are naturally emotionally-tough—resilient by nature—and thereby very resistant to any form of emotional attack. These are the individuals who take on workplace bullying like water on the back of a duck.

I have worked with many of such individuals. One thing I noticed about such people is that they are able to leave their work at work. When they go home, they do not let whatever happened in the workplace eat them up. The next day, they will return to the office, ready to take on more. These individuals have a large capacity to take on emotional garbage and not go down under the stress.

However, there are also those individuals who allow things to easily get to them. These are those who are unable to decouple whatever happens in the office from whatever is happening in their personal lives. When these individuals become the victims of workplace bullying, the effect on them can be very telling.

Tackling workplace bullying must be an organisation-wide initiative and must have the full backing of top management. There must be systems in place to pick on early warning signals. There must be effective reporting lines that can be used to report cases of bullying. Those that are caught bullying must be made to face the full rigours of the law to act as deterrents to others.

There are also things individuals, on their own, can do to ameliorate the effects of workplace bullying. One of the key findings of the North Cyprus study was the importance of mindfulness in helping employees effectively manage workplace bullying. Mindfulness has many definitions but at its most basic, mindfulness is the ability of human beings to direct their minds and attention to live in the present moment. The Internet is replete with various exercises, techniques and activities that employees can adopt to handle the negative effects of workplace bullying.

The ongoing discussion should get all managers, supervisors and business leaders to become wary of the happenings within the organisation and to manage, if not curb, any negative activities that might be affecting the bottom-line. The management of workplace bullying must be done with tact. Anything else, and customer service will pay the price.

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