Intimidation and bullying – the impact and the remedies

eve ash

A construction company manager/owner was recently fined $12,500 for appalling bullying and allowing his staff to harass and physically and psychologically abuse a 16-year-old apprentice. The apprentice has suffered emotional trauma and has ongoing anxiety, depression and nightmares.

The abuse reportedly included holding hot drill-bits to his skin, scraping sandpaper over his face, making him swallow methylated spirits, spraying liquid nails into his hair, ripping his clothes and putting a live mouse down his shirt. He even took the apprentice’s phone and posted sexually explicit comments to a female friend’s social media page.

One coughs up a few thousand dollars for his misdemeanors; the other experiences a lifetime of trauma.

Failure of duty of care management

Horror stories like this boil down to a complete failure of duty of care by management; no preparedness to look out for the stray or vulnerable sheep in their flocks. We don’t have enough “sheepdogs” in the workplace (Sheepdogs are wonderful: they zip around, chase sheep in the right direction, nip heels when necessary, and watch out for predators.) Instead, badly-run companies permit a culture of intimidation, despite their legal obligations to employees.

Intimidation has a nastier aspect: bullying

At the benign end of the spectrum, there’s multiple reasons why we experience intimidation, ranging from negative self-talk to insensitive colleagues who have little grasp of the impact of their behaviours on others, let alone the fact that repeated intimidation is bullying and that is illegal.

Accounts like the teenage apprentice (and many others) above show all too clearly the sick mob mentality that occurs when a workplace is badly or ineptly managed.

Bullies are often characterised as pathetic cowards (which they are), but they’re motivated less by insecurity and more by the glorious sensation of power, especially when they have admirers nearby. Some bullies lack all sense of empathy for others. Either way, there is no excuse for intimidating or threatening people.

Develop your resilience when feeling slightly intimidated

Whether training in new skills or being forced to step out of one’s comfort zone, most of us have experienced that awful sensation of wanting to disappear quietly. It’s perfectly natural in unfamiliar surroundings or being unskilled to feel unease. Our cortisol (stress) levels rocket, we sweat and flinch if anyone throws a critical glance in our direction.

If this is something you’re currently undergoing, try to:

  • Accept that for a while, you’re in novice mode. Make notes, pay extra attention, try not to compare yourself with the person who appears to glide effortlessly through it all
  • Devote extra time to understanding the new place, skills and people. Ask questions and remind yourself to stay calm. Know that in time this will become easier. Take deep, slow breaths when alone.
  • Say to yourself “Ok, so I don’t have the hang of this yet, but I soon will“.  This self-talk is important, because as with every learned skill, it may take time.  Give yourself a chance.
  • Seek someone friendly to assist you.  Make it clear you need help, show appreciation and reciprocate the favour when you can.

If you recognise that someone’s obviously intimidated

Never ignore a person or situation that is potentially a bullying situation. Infact if you are a manager, it is illegal to let it go without action.

So what can you do?

Offer assistance – ask them quietly if there’s assistance you can give:

  • Suggest training – point them in the right direction for further help or skill building
  • Refrain from impatience – everyone learns in their own way, in their own time
  • Encourage others to help, not pick on the “newbie”.  Lead by example in this regard – you’re the sheepdog, remember!

If you’re a manager be diligent

  • Show principles and your mettle by calling all staff together and reiterating that bullying is not tolerated in your workplace
  • Never endorse pack mentality
  • Have a clear grievance process in place and remedies to assist those affected
  • Create a safe place for people to speak up
  • Make sure the teams you appoint are looking out for each other
  • Watch out for bullies who masquerade as victims (these are the most manipulative)
  • If necessary, direct people into areas better suited for their temperaments.

If you experience repeated intimidation = bullying:

  • Keep a diary of incidents and concerns
  • Raise concerns with someone you trust
  • When discussing your grievance, stick to the facts – be both constructive and firm
  • Don’t tolerate being bullied – seek redress through management and insist on your right to feel safe at work
  • If you receive no support and / or the bully continues to get his/her way, ask to be moved to another office / area/ division.  Or leave.

Don’t let places and cultures like this define your right to your life and earning a living.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.

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