Being a Bully – How Can We Tell?

One of the lead articles in New Zealand this week is about the allegation of abuse at a government department from the CEO to a staff member. The allegations have resulted in previous staff members saying the department has a “culture of bullying.”

The government department whose chief executive is being investigated for an alleged assault on a junior staffer had a culture of bullying, former workers claim.

The Dominion Post revealed yesterday that a complaint about Building and Housing Department chief executive Katrina Bach was being investigated, involving “serious allegations” by a junior employee.

It is understood Bach was allegedly involved in an altercation with Jaime Rawlings in front of several other staff.

The State Services Commission confirmed that an independent inquiry had begun after the allegations were made by Rawlings.

Bach, who has been head of the department since 2002, is remaining in her post while the inquiry is being carried out.

The Dominion Post was contacted yesterday by several people who said they used to work at the department, and all complained of a culture of bullying.

One staffer said: “The place has a primitive culture of bullying … I’ve never worked anywhere with such a culture and where staff were so unhappy.”

My Comments
1. Here’s my question – how do we know when bullying is happening is happening at work? That is, what’s the evidence that would say bullying was or was not happening? Are there particular words that are used? Are there certain decisions made around the promotion of some people and the overlooking of others? Does it get physical (like at school), with pushing and shoving?

2. In my recent article, Being Collaborative – How Can We Tell?, the second potential answer was to look at the “type of language used in the interactions between team members.” If this could be an early indicator of collaborativeness, could the same approach also be used to identify bullying?

3. Specifically, what if email messages (or other common forms of electronic communication) inside the organization were automatically monitored for particular phrases, cue words, or patterns. If a match to a “bullying” profile was made, an early escalation to the head of Corporate Counsel, or the CEO, or a Board member (for matches among senior executives) could be sent so that early corrective action could be initiated.

4. This type of analysis already happens in other domains. Could it be applied for good inside an organization?

4 thoughts on “Being a Bully – How Can We Tell?

  1. Michael, nice post, it is amazing how much of this actually goes on in organisations today. Of course there is the hidden cost of it as well, the people who are “paid out” because HR and Legal are trying to protect the reputation of the organisation. Its hardly surprising that people who have been seriously bullied fold with the payout because they see it as an affirmation that it occurred and they hope it will finally go away. I think it is a great idea to consider what the language is that may provide the “weak signals” to quote a mutual acquaintance and could help identify it up front. I suppose that will work as long as the organisation is committed to bringing it out in the open

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Michelle – much appreciated. Fully agree that it would only work if the organization was committed to dealing with the findings. But then – it’s better to deal with them when the show up, not when they blow up.
    Michael.

  3. It would be great if a matrix could be developed for monitoring bullying could be developed. I worked in the public sector for 22 years. Every one of those years was punctuated so sharply by incidents of bullying behaviour. As a union delegate (for PSA and then NUPE) I supported many victims of bullying. A problem I found was that the bullying could not be identified through email traffic or other written words. Workplace bullying is so much more subtle than that. It often involves assigning tedious, low-status work to the victim. Corraling colleagues to nit-pick at the victim’s performance. Whispering criticism among colleagues and other stakeholders about the victim’s competence etc. The antidote to bullying involves generating a culture of real respect for the fundamental human dignity of every one of us, including the cleaners.

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