Research indicates that workplace bullying has a more negative effect on employees than sexual harassment, perhaps because there are more procedures in place for dealing with sexual harassment. To be honest, the problem is really a cultural one. The workplace culture must reject bullying, as there is little the individual worker can do. Successful programs aimed at reducing playground bullying focus on the school environment. Likewise, workplace bullying needs to be addressed at the organisational level.
A comprehensive approach might include:
■ Policies against bullying: Leadership in the workplace must establish clear policies against bullying and for healthy conflict resolution. Clarifying that bullying is any type of unwanted, aggressive or negative behaviour will help employees begin to understand where to draw the lines. Clarifying what the consequences are of workplace bullying (and that the organisation will enforce them) can go a long way to helping employees feel safe. Employees as a group should know what the policies are, as bullies often distort their understanding of the rules to allow their inappropriate behaviour.
■ Prevention of bullying: Programs designed to reduce school bullying often have a committee of representatives from different parts of the school community. This committee then develops and disseminates prevention activities. By involving all levels of employees and management, such a team approach has a better chance of changing an organisational culture than simply a top-down initiative. However, top management has to strongly support it in a meaningful way, or it will fail.
■ Staff training: Training all workers to support each other and ''set limits'' on their co-workers may be more effective than just setting company policies. When workers feel that ''it's not my problem'' there is more likely to be aggressive, bullying behaviour. Practising conflict scenarios and what co-workers can say and do is a particularly useful approach.
■ Confidential lines of communication: Many bullies are in positions of authority over their targets. So lines of communication that require reporting such problems to one's immediate superior do not work. There need to be independent people for reporting bullying.
■ Counselling: It would help employees and organisations to have a resource person for bullied individuals to use to discuss bullying experiences in confidence. This may help employees and organisations reduce the downward spiral of self-doubt and health problems that bullying often triggers.
■ Consequences: There have to be real consequences for bullies that everyone can see. That way other potential bullies will be more careful to follow the rules and other potential victims will know that they will be protected.
■ Healthy workplace laws: Some states and countries are considering healthy workplace legislation that would establish expectations for employee behaviour, and also provide for legal redress for workplace bullying.
If you are being bullied, there are several things to consider.
■ Don't take it personally. Avoid becoming self-critical or becoming isolated. Bullying behaviour is about the bully, not the target. There is nothing you could have done to deserve this behaviour.
■ Get help. Talk to someone about the bullying, even if it's a friend, family member or co-worker. Don't try to stop the bully alone. That is a mistake many individuals and organisations make.
■ Find out your organisation's policy about bullying. There may be a resource person to whom you can report the bullying. The best policies encourage co-workers and managers to work together to halt bullying behaviour and to have the bully removed, if necessary.
If you are being bullied by your immediate supervisor and if your organisation says you have to talk to that person, look around for someone else to talk to.
■ Remember you have choices. Many excellent employees leave organisations that allow bullies to run rampant. You don't have to tolerate a hostile work environment. Knowing you have choices and investigating your options (such as other jobs) will give you strength. Bullying is not about you. It's about the bully's personality problems. You don't have to be stuck.
Understanding that bullying is primarily an unconscious behaviour may assist organisations and individuals in approaching this more effectively. Most workplace bullies may be ''high conflict people''. Realising this helps understand that the problem is:
■ A problem of long duration that won't just go away.
■ It is a deep and serious problem, rather than a minor problem.
■ It is a problem that must be solved at the community level, rather than putting the burden on the individual target.
Bill Eddy is CEO of the the High Conflict Institute and the author of several books. He will be leading a workshop on ''How to combat bullying and increase safety and productivity at work'' on September 26 at the CSIRO Discovery Centre, sponsored by the Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators Australia. Contact 6260 7117.