Keeping workplace bullying at bay


Keeping workplace bullying at bay

  • facebook
  • linkedin
  • twitter
  • whatsapp

Prof. Premilla D’Cruz


The widespread contemporary discourse on respectful and dignified workplaces has obvious gains for employers and employees alike. Positive morale, heightened satisfaction and enhanced commitment, translating into feelings of empowerment at the employee level, and increased efficiency, higher productivity and greater effectiveness, adding to organizational reputation at the employer level, are the benefits.

The path to this desirable scenario, however, has sometimes been found to be riddled with the hurdle of misbehaviour. Aggression, harassment, bullying and abuse have been seen to affect organizations worldwide, taking away from cordial and co-operative relationships.

Indeed, even Indian workplaces across formal and informal as well as public and private sectors, and industry types such as manufacturing, engineering, financial services, IT and ITES, health, FMCG, retail, travel, hospitality and communication report such instances. These negative acts can be displayed overtly or covertly by individuals or groups to other individuals or groups in public and/or in private.

Person-related bullying includes constant criticism, insults, threats, slandering and spreading gossip and rumour while task-related bullying includes giving unmanageable workloads and deadlines, excessive monitoring and assigning meaningless or no work.

Isolation or exclusion also fall within the purview. The persistence and severity of these behaviours, with their consequences of harm and powerlessness for targets, distinguish them from impoliteness, mild sarcasm, casual teasing, humour, etc.

In the current context, as workplaces rely on information and communication technologies and devices (ICTDs) for business, cyber harassment at work is becoming increasingly common. Virtual workplace abuse is experienced even more peniciously than its real counterpart. Being boundaryless, it crosses spatial and temporal limits such that targets can be harassed any time and anywhere beyond office premises and boundaries.

The anonymity and invisibility afforded by ICTDs lead to self-dissociation, augmented disinhibition and lowered accountability—such that bullies are more willing to take risks. And since many ICTDs do leave virtual footprints whereby the concreteness and permanence of the acts implicate the perpetrator, there is often a risk involved which is obviously disregarded. Yet, this availability of proof allows targets of cyberbullying a much better—and often foolproof—chance of having the situation solved and the bully punished.

It is common for many organizations to have policies and procedures to prevent and contain misbehaviour, given their endorsement of respect and dignity. Yet, aggression, harassment, bullying and abuse persist.

Even where organizational cultures and leadership are synchronized with policies and procedures setting an appropriate tone at the top, workplace misbehaviour could flow from superiors to subordinates, between peers and even from subordinates to superiors. While authority facilitates the first case, there are other explanations for all three instances.

Targets perceived as vulnerable or as threats, bullies with sadistic traits or experiencing insecurity, interpersonal competition and micropolitical behaviour operate at the individual level. Managers and supervisors may engage in aggression to assert their position, to get the work done or to cope with an overwhelming workload. Apart from target and bully specific factors, situational dynamics such as rapid change, excessive workloads, job insecurity, role confusion and role conflict are also triggers.

In cases of upwards bullying, perpetrators take advantage of their expertise on which their superior may be dependent or of their affiliation with top management, knowing that they can get away with it. That harassment could be combined with discrimination based on membership to social categories such as gender, race, religion, class, disability, chronic illness and sexuality, cannot be ruled out. In the Indian context, region and caste are relevant.

What should organizations do when confronted with bullying and abuse? The Dutch practice of having a confidential counsellor is worthwhile. The confidential counsellor is any employee who is specially appointed to the role without any conflicting interest via his/her position in the organization and who is completely protected in supporting targets. In fact, the role of the confidential counsellor is only to provide a safe environment to targets, giving them solace and advising them about possible options while never disclosing their identity or experience to anyone nor taking any steps without their informed consent.

Just tuning to the confidential counsellor and receiving non-judgemental and complete understanding has been found to comfort targets.

Bystander training is proving to be an important avenue. Arming all employees with awareness about misbehaviour and encouraging them to either intervene or to report it with full confidentiality and no personal risk sustains anti-bullying policies. Since colleagues are witnesses to the negative acts, promoting bystander intervention emboldens them to initiate direct or indirect steps to address the situation, thereby ensuring zero-tolerance for abuse and harassment at the workplace.

Instituting grievance procedures and complaints committees sends out the message that targets’ matters are taken seriously and will receive due attention in the spirit of justice and fainess. The composition and functioning of complaints committees should rule out conflicts of interest, partiality and bias, with pluralism and objectivity comprising the guiding principles.

Where robust mechanisms are not in place, targets have been further victimized and conered to the extent that they prefer to quit their jobs and seek fresh employment. Unfavourable messages, indicative of poor organizational support, go out to other employees, whose morale and commitment weaken and the resultant poor performance impedes organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Cases where the HR department has adopted a managerial stand, foregoing their traditional employee advocacy mandate in favour of emerging strategic business alignments, thereby harming rather than assisting targets, have been reported.

Indian organizations are particularly advantaged to handle situations of misbehaviour if they draw on indigenous cultural orientations of collectivism, relationality, tolerance and spiritualism.

Respectful and dignified workplaces are valued and sought after across the globe. Yet, achieving and maintaining them calls for a concerted effort, given the evidence that aggression and abuse at work are on the rise worldwide, being linked to the competitive business environment characterized by volatility and uncertainty and a race for survival at micro and macro levels. Further, being vigilant about and prepared to tackle emerging manifestations of cyberbullying cannot be postponed, given the rapid march of technology.


Premilla D’Cruz is professor of organizational behaviour at IIM Ahmedabad. A PhD from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, she researches workplace bullying, emotions in organizations, self and identity at work, and ICTDs and organizations. She is currently secretary of the Intenational Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment (IAWBH).

This article presents the author’s personal views and should not be construed to represent the institute’s position on the subject.


First published in 'View from IIMA' column in Mint.