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Bullying at work: Molehills into Mountains, or Mountains into Molehills? - by Dr. Karen McIvor

Your viewpoint is likely to reflect your past experiences, culture, expectations and role: whether that is target, accused perpetrator, observer or person charged with sorting out the issue. We may see the same thing, but each of these factors contribute to the interpretation and construction of what we perceive. This goes some way to explaining why the type of behaviour that offends us may vary in degree, why being at the receiving end of screamed instructions feels different on a parade ground, than it would in an office, and how multiple versions of the events may all be true.

Bullying has no definition in law, therefore it sits in a no manís land of interpretation. This creates a morass of uncertainty for human resources, occupational health, managers and even trade union representatives seeking to resolve bullying issues. It also explains why it is so important that the definition used in an organisationís policy is relevant and appropriate. Very few organisations have personnel experienced in this field, and yet their reaction to the issue may well have wide-ranging repercussions.

Every organisation should have a policy that lays out its attitude and response to bullying. Unfortunately, far too many policies are plagiarised and adopted without any process to check whether they are fit for purpose. Consequently, when a problem arises and attention turns to their content they may be found wanting, or worse still, compound the problem. For instance, the definition and given examples of bullying may not reflect the reality of the boundaries between regrettable and unacceptable behaviour within the organisation; or the processes may be so prescriptive that they create additional problems.

The added complications arising from ill-thought out bullying policies, can be compounded by interactions with associated policies and procedures. An example here would be the performance procedure that requires that all issues of underperformance are communicated formally using a pro-forma letter. There may be understandable underlying reasons for the drop in performance, but if the procedure affords little room for manoeuvre or allowance, the manager sees it as following protocols, whilst the recipient sees it as excessive and unreasonable, and feels threatened and undervalued. This unintentional consequence of procedure can lead to a downward spiral in relationships and performance. Inadvertent policy / procedural contribution to a negative outcome, can be matched by examples of unintentional harm caused by an individualís initiative.

Imagine the scenario where a supervisor decides to hold monthly team socials after work, but knowing that one of the team always has to be away on the dot for domestic reasons, doesnít include that person on the email circulation list. Unfortunately, neither party has an insight into the otherís motives, thoughts and feelings. From the supervisorís viewpoint there is no issue, but the excepted team member feels that the act was one of exclusion, and as such was personal. The response is to become withdrawn. From such small beginnings, complaints of bullying can arise.

Dr. K.M.McIvor © 2015

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Dr. K.M.McIvor © 2015
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