LeadUP virtual chat: Panellists discuss various faces of workplace bullying

Posted on October 27, 2020

Bullying is a sign of insecurity on the part of the perpetrator, while the act itself can be subtle or overt.

This emerged at a recent LeadUP alumni virtual chat, a webinar hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP) titled ‘Celebrate Boss’s Day: A discussion about putting your employees first and committing to a work environment that is free of bullying and intimidation.’

The virtual chat – which was moderated by Sebenzile Nkambule, Executive Officer: Strategic Partnerships at The Other Foundation – featured a panel that was made up of Dr Ngao Motsei, lecturer at UP’s Gordon Institute of Business Science; Bradley Workman-Davies, Director at Werksmans Attorneys; Brightness Mangolothi, Director at HERS-SA; and Levandri Pillay, a clinical psychologist in private practice.

“Bullying can be subtle (gaslighting) or outright overt: ‘subtle’ entails manipulation behind closed doors,” Dr Motsei said. “Overt bullying involves shouting and screaming at an employee in front of one’s peers.” However, she added, this sort of intimidating behaviour is a reflection of the insecurities of the bully.

Dr Motsei explained that bullying has moved from the playground into the boardroom. Also, with employees working remotely due to the lockdown brought on by COVID-19, cyberbullying has become prevalent. “There are overbearing managers who constantly communicate with employees and expect them to be online 24/7, showing that bullying comes in different forms,” according to Dr Motsei.

“There’s a high prevalence of bullying in the higher education and public sector, with ‘star researchers’ who bring in funding bullying others,” said Mangolothi, whose PhD focuses on workplace mistreatment. Here, she said, universities tend to turn a blind eye as they do not want to lose the person who brings in the funding. “Bullying can be multi-layered: bosses can bully staff; staff can bully one another; and staff can bully the boss.” 

Contract workers are often the ones who bear the brunt of mistreatment, Mangolothi added. “They need the salary, so they tolerate anything and everything. A heavy workload, for instance, is a form of bullying: if a leader gives a staff member a heavy workload and they object, the leader can claim that its insubordination.”

Mangolothi pointed out another version of bullying: when employees are seen as individuals who do not “fit the culture”; he or she is then isolated or pushed out of the system if they disrupt the status quo.

Apart from the mental distress, bullying can have medical consequences: it can put a victim at high risk of heart disease, said Pillay. It can also cause pain, lack of sleep, depression, and even conditions like fibromyalgia. Besides a lack of motivation to go to work, it can have a spillover effect, affecting the victim’s parent-child and marital relationships.

For Workman-Davies, policies on bullying tend to come about only when problems arise. However, human resources departments should be proactive by holding workshops and sensitising employees about intimidating behaviour. He said the law is dispassionate when it comes to bullying and other forms of unfair discriminatory behaviour. “There is a robust mechanism in law to protect employees from unfair discrimination, regardless of their level in a company.”

However, “some leaders lack emotional intelligence, and policies are manipulated” to advance the bully, added Mangolothi.

Dr Motsei said bosses need to create an environment where employees feel safe to speak up, and need to take a stand that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated. “They need to define bullying and support it with processes and procedures. Bullying is not an HR issue – it is everybody else’s responsibility.”

She said training should be provided to key staff and managers. “Support needs to be provided to staff who report bullying.” But Mangolothi added that management tends to take sides. “If people speak up, they need to see that the company is doing something about it.”

“UP recognises that bullying is a form of discrimination and that it is undesirable in the workplace,” said UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe, who was part of the virtual discussion. Last year the University passed an anti-discrimination policy, which encourages staff to report acts of bullying. “We want to create a nurturing, enabling environment, where students get the best degrees and researchers produce the best research that is transformative,” said Prof Kupe.

Click here to watch the discussion.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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