Bullying - Employee Perspective

Frequently Asked Question

I feel I’m being bullied but I’m not sure.  What is bullying?

Workplace bullying behaviour, which is repeated, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more people, at the place of work, if it is undermining the individual’s right to dignity while they work is considered to be bullying.  A once off incidence it not considered to be bullying even though it may make the individual feel undermined at the time.

The Task Force (Mar’01) recommends the following definition:
Workplace Bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.

An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but as a once off incident is not considered to be bullying.

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What behaviours are not bullying?

It is difficult to say what is not bullying but we can isolate behaviours which, alone, would not fit within the broad definition of bullying. Here are some examples.

1. Derek is a colleague of Maria. Derek goes for tea on his breaks with Mark. They sit together and chat and every day they take lunch together, without inviting Maria along. Lately, due to absences there are only 5 people in the office and the other 2 are long standing pals and go to lunch and breaks together, leaving Maria alone.

Some people feel hurt and isolated – especially in a small office setting – if they are not included. However, this does not meet any of the bullying criteria. Feeling aggrieved or hurt does not equate with bullying. A difficulty is when people feel hurt or aggrieved; they can become more sensitive than usual and pick up false cues from others’ behaviour, leading them to create scenarios out of what are essentially harmless actions.

Learning point:  When people perceive a slight, it can be due to something done, or to something not done, and they can let it escalate rapidly into a point of conflict - so it is important for everyone to be civil and mannerly to all colleagues, regardless of how well we get along. It is important that people also accept that they might not always be included and they have to either accept that or find ways to become more included or find alternative ways of being included.

2 Frances is a supervisor and oversees 5 people. Her remit is to ensure time keeping is adhered to, housekeeping around the warehouse is up to standard, absences are monitored, payroll is effectively operated and targets are met for each employee.  Donal, who reports to Frances, feels put out because over the past 4 weeks Frances has called him into the office 5 times about different things; lates, absences, his work level – nothing nobody else is doing - and it’s all making him feel picked on in front of the others.

The two important points here are that Frances is a supervisor with a role and that Donal feels he is being picked out, singled out for lesser treatment.  This is not necessarily bullying.  The thing to consider is the term ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.  Behaviour may make a person feel bad, or undermined, or that they feel less ‘dignity’ than colleagues, but it must also be inappropriate. It is not inappropriate for a supervisor to point out and challenge lates, absences, low productivity levels. The crucial thing is how that is done.  If Frances goes out and shouts abusively at Donal, then there is an issue of inappropriateness about how she is behaving. However, if she calls him into the office and points out the issues and continues to do so, as in this case, that is not bullying.  Donal is not aware that Frances has also called in another person for similar issues.

Learning point:  It’s not enough to be singled out, corrected, challenged, to make for a valid bullying complaint.  One should not assume nobody else is being challenged for such issues.  It may occur that one person is being corrected more due to having more lates, or a wider range of infringements. Those in positions of power should record and keep track so that they can prove that they are not singling out one person without evidence or reason.

3 Jim is 21 and everyone in the firm he works in is over 40.  They keep slagging him and joking with him about his age, calling him a toy boy and making lewd and embarrassing remarks. He feels bullied.

Discriminating against some, using offensive remarks and suggestive conversation due to their age is ageist and due to their gender is sexist. These behaviours would be considered sexual harassment or harassment on the basis of age.  These behaviours may be considered ‘jokes’ and ‘harmless’ by some, but not by others. Many people on the receiving end of such treatment will not challenge such behaviours but feel hurt and humiliated by it. These behaviours are outlawed in workplaces and should not be tolerated. Anyone behaving in this way can be subject of sanction under disciplinary proceedings. Whereas these do not make for bullying per se, they are termed harassment complaints.

4 Jenny feels bullied. She was the subject of a grievance at work 6 months ago when a person she manages went to HR saying she was being overly harsh on her in the Performance review. This was investigated by Jenny’s manager who found that she had been discriminatory in how she judged this reportee. Now jenny’s management ability is being queried and she is being monitored. Now Jenny feels she is being bullied by her manager.

Often, when a person is investigated for a wrong doing, or when called to account for something they have done, they feel aggrieved. They feel that their respect worthiness has been questioned. This does not amount to bullying when it is a matter of the organisation reacting to a complaint. All of us must be aware that we can be the subject of complaint or our actions can be queried. We cannot then retort that this is us being bullied. It is not inappropriate for the head of organisations to instigate investigations or to query our function, if issues of question are brought to their attention. The crucial aspect is what was brought forward– does it have legitimacy and how was it processed.

Learning point: We have all to accept we are open to having our actions assessed. However, we have a right to this being done reasonably and with legitimate reason. If the query is facile and without any foundation, then the above scenario would alter and jenny would have a case if there were various behaviours involved over time where she was being undermined.

Finally, bullying can be very difficult as it is hinged on perceptions and subjective assessments of what is appropriate and what is not. It is beneficial for all to sit back and take time, consider what was done and try to see it from an alternative perspective and to not act quickly. There may be a reasonable explanation for what initially appears an unreasonable act.  The best approach firstly is to approach the persons and try to assess what was meant. Informal resolution of early-stage conflicts leads to better long term outcomes. Jumping to conclusions about what other people ‘meant’ by what they did or said are often flawed. We do not know what another person’s intentions are; we superimpose our own biases onto them and this clouds better judgement.

Get another view. Imagine another reason. Find a workable solution. If these are impossible, seek a contact person/support person and try to figure a way forward to reduce conflict and improve working relationships to a reasonable level.

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What is the role of the HSA?

The remit of the Authority is a policy one.  We do not have an interventionist role but can assist in terms of policy and management of the issue generally at organisational level.  If an organisation refuses to supply a policy to our Inspectors, as part of their overall Safety Management System, they can be issued with an Improvement Notice to do so.

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My workplace does not have procedures in place to deal with bullying, whom should I contact?

If you feel the problem in your workplace is the lack of an adequate policy, the HSA can assist.   Please indicate on the Complaint that your organisation does not have an anti-bullying policy.  On receipt of your complaint we will request the policy from your employer and send it on to you. We will recommend changes if it is not in line with the HSA Code.  It is then up to you to use the procedures in the policy to raise your particular concerns with your employer.

You can also get the HSA Guidelines on bullying in the workplace for employees by contacting publications on 0818 289389 or download the Bullying Code of Practice. This document gives details on what you should do if you feel you are being bullied in your workplace.

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I have made an official complaint to my employer in line with our policy and nothing has happened but the bullying continues? What will I do next?

You may contact the Adjudication Service at the Workplace Relations Commission on 01 6313380 at Lansdowne House, Lansdowne Road, Dublin 4. The Adjudication Service deal with bullying grievances through mediation and/or arbitration.

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An investigation has been carried out but I’m not happy with the findings or outcome? What can I do?

You may contact the Adjudication Service at the Workplace Relations Commission on 01 6313380. The Adjudication Service are independent adjudicators who investigate disputes referred to them under specific legislation. They are the main State Agency with responsibility towards bullying and can assess internal investigations to check procedural fairness as well as carrying out investigations themselves. Their findings are issued to the parties in the form of non-binding recommendations.

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Where can I get statistics on bullying in the workplace?

From the Report of the Task Force (March ’01) conducted by the Economic & Social Research Institute (ERSI) 01 667 1525.  This is available from the Publications Unit in the HSA0818 289 389 Or contact the Anti Bullying Centre at DCU - details below.

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What publications are available?

Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work
Dignity at Work Charters - A3 & A4
Available from HSA publications office 0818 289 389 or HSA website.

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I was physically attacked only once but I was left fearful and vulnerable – how can this not be regarded as bullying?

Any act of violence, whether carried out outside of work, or within, is outlawed and should be reported to the Gardai.  The laws of the State apply at all times and so violence at work is not treated differently to any other violent act.  The HSA recommend that you report any such event to the Gardai and also to your employer.  Your employer should also have procedures in place for dealing with violent incidences.  The HSA guidance on Violence in the Workplace can be obtained from Publications Unit on 0818 289389 .

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I am sexually harassed in my workplace – what can I do?

If you feel you are being bullied due to your sexual orientation, family status, marital status, religion, race, disability, membership of the traveller community, age or gender, you should contact the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Harassment under all of the above grounds is against the law and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) / is the State Agency that monitors that area

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I feel ill, depressed, and suicidal because of bullying in my workplace, what can I do? Where can I get counselling?

You should immediately attend your GP who will determine if you are fit or unfit for work and who also can recommend further treatment or counselling if necessary. If your GP is closed, contact the Samaritans on 1850 60 90 90 talk to someone about your problem and your feelings and then seek medical help.

If there is an EAP (Employment Assistance Programme) or Welfare Officer in your workplace you may contact them.

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I am leaving my job because of bullying, what can I do?

If you are leaving your job as you feel that to remain would damage your health and/or well-being and that your leaving is due to bullying, you can consider taking Constructive Dismissal - under Unfair Dismissal proceedings, you should contact the Workplace Relations Commission for information on 059 9178990/0818 80 80 90.

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I was dismissed from my job because I reported bullying, what can I do now?

If you feel your employment was terminated due to bullying, you should contact the Workplace Relations Commission on 059 9178990/0818 80 80 90. They will send out claim application forms under the unfair and construction dismissal proceedings to complainants. You can consider a Section 27 case - for being treated unfairly/discriminated against due to raising a legitimate health and safety issue at work.

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My boss, colleague, customer verbally abused me yesterday in front of others.  I felt undermined and isolated.  Would that be considered bullying?

An isolated incident, as a once off, is not considered to be bullying.  However, it may have been offensive to you and you should try to approach the person calmly and point out to them that the behaviour was offensive to you, why it was offensive and that you are now asking them to refrain from repeating that behaviour in future and treat all co-workers with dignity and respect.  You may take a note of the incident and the conversation for your own records.

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