Over the years I’ve encountered many organizations where bullying is a pervasive part of the culture. In some cases, I’ve represented victims of this behaviour. In others, I’ve conducted investigations into allegations of bullying. Sometimes this has even come up in training sessions where I’ve been asked to come and speak to employees about respect in the workplace. The work that I do is usually designed to try and avoid the legal costs associated with workplace bullying – avoiding damage awards for victims or legal costs associated with litigating cases involving bullies. However, there is a hidden cost to bullying that often gets overlooked.

There is certainly more public attention on bullying than ever before. The tragic Canadian cases involving Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd have shone a spotlight on bulling and its potential harmful effects, so why does this behaviour persist and why are we not insulated from it in our workplaces?

I have had the opportunity to speak to many individuals who have been accused of (and in many cases been found to have engaged in) bullying behaviour and it’s interesting to hear why they behave the way they do.  Here are some of the things that they say:

 

  • “When I push them hard, it gets results!”
  • “They just don’t understand the kind of stress that I’m under.  I don’t have time to worry about how they feel.”
  • “If they can’t handle the pressure, they shouldn’t be in the kitchen.”

To me, these comments provide much insight into the types of organizations that are tolerating this behaviour and, in some cases, actively encouraging it by rewarding and promoting bullies up through the ranks.  What these organizations fail to see are the hidden costs of this form of management style.

First of all, little attention is often paid to the costs associated with disability leaves and absenteeism. Victims of bullying behaviour will often take time off, sometimes for an extended period, in order to cope with the behaviour, and they will often do this for years, as opposed to ever complaining about the behaviour. All of this is easily quantifiable and goes straight to the organization’s bottom line – in some cases substantially.

Second, contrary to the opinions of some managers, bullying is not an effective way to maximize an employee’s performance. There may be some evidence which suggests that an employee is motivated by the bullying behaviour – for example, they may truly work faster when they’re afraid they will be yelled at or threatened with losing their job. However, the evidence supports the fact that a non-bullying form of management would actually be far more effective in maximizing this same employee’s performance. In addition, many employees actually do not show improved performance in response to a course of bullying – some perform far worse in these conditions and others go off on leave, as noted above.

Third, organizations that become known for their bullying culture can hurt themselves in terms of their recruitment prospects and also in terms of public opinion and confidence.  If you think for a moment, my guess is that you will be able to think of at least one Canadian employer that has become well known in the press as of late for the many complaints of bullying and harassment against it which have been reported. If you think about the impression you now have about that particular organization, ask yourself if this is the impression you would want the world to have about your organization.

According to the Workplace Bullying Project Team at Griffith University in Australia, the financial cost of bullying to businesses is between $6 and $13 billion per year and can include decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, staff turnover and poor morale. Consider the current economy, where we’re all being stretched to do more with a decreasing amount of resources, and where an aging workforce is threatening a looming labour shortage.  It may seem like we lawyers talk about the evils of bullying because of the threat of litigation and/or because we are interested in promoting a utopian workplace. In fact, the reality is that organizations can simply no longer afford to ignore the high cost of bullying.