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Bullying in the workplace

‘A team of scientists heated a pan of water to a high temperature. Then they tried to put a live frog into it. The frog jumped out immediately. A second frog was put in a pan of cold water that was gradually heated to boiling. That frog never tried to jump. It was boiled to death.’

This parable was used in a book called ‘The Bully at Work’ to illustrate the insidious nature of bullying or moral harassment and the impact that it can have on the environment and the individuals targeted by it. Workplace bullying can be defined as the repeated undermining or mistreatment of one or more individuals that takes the shape of a variety of actions, ranging from work interference, exclusion or even willful sabotage, to threatening or intimidating behaviours and verbal abuse.

Examples of bullying behaviour can vary between the more visible actions of repeatedly criticising someone in public, spreading gossip or innuendo, shouting abuse or generally making discriminatory or offensive remarks on the one hand, and the more subtle forms of impeding performance, such as withholding information or resources, setting unrealistic goals or constantly changing work guidelines, systematically blocking applications for training or sidelining people and undervaluing their contributions.

Bullying behaviour follows a repetitive pattern of actions aimed at undermining people to the point that they are no longer able to perform, thus leading to a loss of morale and productivity that affects the health and wellbeing of the whole team. It is typically characterised by an underlying lack of respect or concern for the people or the environment concerned. It is not to be confused with differences of opinion, constructive feedback or fact-based management actions, which, on the other hand, are motivated by a genuine wish to advise, guide or restore performance.

People who are targeted by bullying do not always realise what is happening at the outset: instead, they often react by questioning their own understanding of the situation, sometimes even beginning to doubt their own competence and, before they know it, they may find themselves trapped in a downward spiral from which it is very hard to recover.

It is therefore extremely important, if you believe you are being bullied, to react early and to address the situation, either yourself or with the help of your hierarchy, your HRA or the Ombud, by clearly identifying the unacceptable behaviour and requesting that it stop.

If informal measures such as mediation or direct intervention seem inappropriate or insufficient, it may be necessary to resort to formal action. For this, it is important to keep a factual journal of day-to-day events, including dates, times, e-mail exchanges and names of any witnesses, as well as detailed descriptions of the interactions concerned, as it is not only the actions in themselves but also the number, frequency and patterns of behaviour that will help determine whether the actions do indeed amount to bullying or harassment and how the problem will be addressed.

CERN’s Operational Circular No. 9 defines bullying or moral harassment of this kind as “unwelcome behaviour that has the effect of violating a person's dignity and/or creating a hostile work environment… [which is] … contrary to the principles of equal opportunity, non-discrimination and mutual respect…. [and]… detrimental to health and safety at the workplace and the good functioning of the Organization in general”, and outlines the policy and procedures with which to address it.

Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill