Bullying in the workplace: pervasive and damaging

By: Lulama Qabaka

When we leave high school many of us all have career paths we would like to follow. For most, the end of matric feels like one is now ready to start that journey. Some are even privileged enough to go to university and upon graduation finally, land a job at a big company. Your dream has finally come true and you are ready to conquer the world. Then suddenly this dream slowly but surely begins to become a personal nightmare. Why does this happen?

In one of my self-reflection moments during this lockdown, I thought that except for sport, current affairs and politics, the most common topic my friends and I frequently talk about is work. Whenever the topic would shift from discussing the best football club “Manchester United” (in case you were wondering) to ‘’how are things at work’’? The mood normally changes from one of engagement to a dull response such as “span ke span” (work is work).

It does not matter in which industry we operate, the pressure to deliver good results and even exceed them can wear heavy on most people. One does not only have to deal with complex deliverables at work but then there are also the no less significant matters of family and ‘adulting’.

I recently spoke to a very promising graduate in the financial sector who dared to disagree with a senior member of the firm he works for. He is from a generation that believes in freedom of speech and expressing one’s opinion. His inputs were, however, not well appreciated by this senior member and his colleagues, and they went out of their way to teach the young man a lesson.

His confidence slowly diminished, and he went from being bubbly and self-assured to becoming an extremely unhappy individual. Eventually had to go into therapy for three months. I am happy to say that he is well on his way again, however, the ending is not always a happy one.

Individuals such as this friend seem to be on a good trajectory to the top of the corporate ladder. This is of course until their careers seem to grind down slowly. The individual’s confidence is often taken away slowly through subtle or overt abuse in the workplace until they lose their mojo.

So, what caused my friend’s unhappiness? In short, he was bullied! The Merriam Webster dictionary defines bullying as “being prone to or characterized by overbearing mistreatment and domination of others”. In high school bullying happens in a straightforward crude manner. However, in the world of work, it presents in a more subtle, even sophisticated, manner. Some of the ways this can occur are by:

  • Being given unclear work instructions,
  • Continued denials of request for time off without a valid reason,
  • Threats, insults, and other forms of abuse,
  • Micromanagement,
  • Excessive criticism and others stealing credit for good work,
  • The accusation of wrongful work, and
  • Undermining of career aspirations or overt refusal of promotion.

The list is not exhaustive, but these are the most common signs that one is being bullied.

Reasons for bullying may vary from an individual needing to assert themselves to remain in control. It may also stem from the individual having personal issues and bringing those issues to work. Of the many reasons the one I would like to focus on is when the bullying is institutionalised. In other words, it has become part of the organisation’s culture – ‘How we do things around here’.

Many organisations have very good values and ethics-based documents that support the values that contribute to the formation of their broad organisational culture, and thus also their ethical culture. Bullying may be an unspoken accepted practice endorsed by the mantra of those with some longevity in the organisation of ‘eat or be eaten!’.

Allowing bullying to manifest in an organisation does not only lead to a toxic culture but also does not allow a positive ethical culture to manifest. It will not matter what type of sound ethical interventions the organisation has implemented, allowing bullying will negate the best of intentions. From an organisational point of view, this may lead to decreased productivity. However, the most important thing is the net impact this form of unethical behaviour may have on employees.

We often underestimate the dynamics that may cause hostility in the workplace. It is also often a fact that it is not readily discussed and exposed. Bullying happens both horizontally and vertically. Also, discrimination can have many bases, two of which may be race or gender. It may sometimes occur between two employees when one party feels threatened or when both are competing for the same promotion.

Workplace bullying does not necessarily begin in the corporate world but can also reflect the society we come from. Those who bully others in the workplace did not necessarily become bullies overnight once they started working, they may have already been bullies at school or became bullies as a result of toxic work environments.

We can define ethics as behaviour that is good for both the self and the other – irrespective of whether the self or other is an individual, a group or the entire organisation. Organisations need to consider how much they lose by not addressing these issues. It would benefit organisations to take a hard look at their ethical culture and assess whether bullying is a cause of a weak ethical culture. Having this knowledge may enable organisations to slowly reverse the situation – and creating a positive environment where employees may thrive.

My emphasis is not on the factors that cause the bullying itself, but most importantly how these affect the employee and the organisation’s continued sustainability. It is often said that the world is a tough environment and if you want to make it, do not expect to be treated like a Teletubby (no offence to Tinky Winky).

There is a growing number of professionals who need or seek help from psychologists or counsellors purely because they are not coping with toxic work environments.

Some of the

effects of workplace bullying include:

  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • High staff turnover
  • Absenteeism
  • Decreased morale and productivity
  • Lack of motivation.

This affects employees’ personal lives and may consequently negatively affect families as well. South Africa’s constitution is based on good values and ethics – in keeping with the spirit of the constitution organisations should endeavour to treat employees with dignity.

Organisations should also ensure that their governing bodies’ ethics committees keep a keen eye on bullying and other forms of unethical conduct. As for their oversight function, such committees need to ask the right questions – what types of unethical behaviour are present, and how are they being dealt with. Is bullying one of these behaviours? What is being done to prevent it and address it if it does occur?

It is important to view employees as the stars of the organisation, and to understand, that their performance depends on how they are being treated. Let us all be proactive in our places of work and reduce the negative effects that bullying has on our employees.


Lulama Qabaka is an Ethics and Anti-Corruption Specialist at The Ethics Institute.