Five reasons why workplace bullies survive and thrive: And what we can do about it

bullyingIn 2015, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons went through a serious soul searching exercise following some alarming reports of bullying in the profession.

The College commissioned an independent report that contained shocking findings. These included,

  • 49% of Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates report being subjected to discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment
  • 54% of trainees and 45% of Fellows less than 10 years post-fellowship report being subjected to bullying
  • 71% of hospitals reported discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment in their hospital in the last five years, with bullying the most frequently reported issue
  • 39% of Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates report bullying, 18% report discrimination, 19% report workplace harassment and 7% sexual harassment
  • the problems exist across all surgical specialties and
  • senior surgeons and surgical consultants are reported as the primary source of these problems.

You can find the full report here.

There is nothing new in this- and surgeons may be no better or worse than any other professional group, including social workers. We ought to commend the surgeons on their honesty. But why is it so bad? Let me restate the blindingly obvious.

  1. Bullies get short-term results. We live in the world of the KPI, the financial year, and the spreadsheet. For many organisations these are not just tools, but substitutes for real values. So let’s get real about the causal factors between “performance” and bullying cultures.
  2. Bullies successfully “manage up” and accumulate power and influence. They seek to make themselves indispensable. Many are charming- some are just threatening. The result is the same- wrapping themselves into power structures with octopus-like tenacity.
  3. Bullies don’t care about their victims- their empathy stretching only to those who share their world view. Ironically, bullies often see themselves as victims, making the tough decisions, and doing work that others cannot stomach. This theme is eloquently captured in the Hollywood courtroom drama, A Few Good Men. In the climactic scene, a Marine Colonel, pressed to justify the death of one of his men says, “You can’t handle the truth! ..we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? ..I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You..curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like “honor”, “code”, “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said “thank you”, and went on your way.” (You tube clip here)
  4. Policies and procedures meant to investigate and remediate are not used -or do not work. Whilst there is important work to be done to assure real justice and protect human rights, these processes will never be perfect. The best analogy is an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff. And to be sure- if you need an ambulance you want a good one! However I have yet to see a workplace with a truly independent process, and sufficient to power to prevent the organisation from shielding the bully, together with the authority to deliver timely justice. Even the quick removal of a bully still leaves post traumatic scars and necessary repairs.
  5. Whistleblowers are often ostracized and punished. Like a surgeon seeking consent for a dangerous procedure, we need to be honest with victims about the true chances of proper redress, as well as the consequences of alternative choices. We all have stories of traumatised colleagues, who in hindsight, could have and would have protected themselves better.

And so lasting remedies will rely far more on prevention than cure. If your workplace rates highly on the following parameters, it will seriously reduce the oxygen that bullying needs to survive. Does your organisation

  1. Identify and reward respectful behavior
  2. Honor truth
  3. Encourage cultural diversity
  4. Acknowledge the need for work/life balance
  5. Plan for the long term
  6. Reject quick fixes and addresses root causes
  7. Nurture talent and innovation
  8. Seek to promote talent from minority groups

If your workplace does not have real metrics to monitor progress on these things, it will continue to be a haven for bullies. And no matter where you sit in your organisation you can have some effect on promoting a positive culture.

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10 Responses to Five reasons why workplace bullies survive and thrive: And what we can do about it

  1. Susan Loane says:

    Hi Vittorio,

    Re your article: Bullying

    nice, concise and to the point. I have a few clients currently who are going through a very difficult time in their workplace, and I have been able to support them through it. It is amazing to see how many people are unaware of their rights.

    One of my clients has been subjected to sexual harassment and workplace bullying, and was unaware she could take the matter into her own hands as much as she has now;… this I feel is not ignorance per se as much as it is because of a lack of public awareness regarding these matters.

    This client is not an uneducated person….. She has been bullied for twelve months by a cohort of her colleagues. When I pointed out to her the organisations who can support her through this, ( apart from myself), she was quite shocked.

    This young woman was at the point of suicide when she was referred to me.

    I have found your article very interesting, in light of recent events, regarding my current clients.

    Good stuff! keep on keeping on,

    kind regards,

    Susan Loane

    • Karen Coleman says:

      Hi Susan and Vittorio
      Bullying policies are interesting. If the organisation has the will much can change but I have found for some bullying seems to be systemic. ( Although I have a limited view usually from the victim’s perspective). Do either of you know if a review of the legislative changes around bullying and the rights of the victims to speak out has been reviewed or if a review is planned?
      Anecdotally it seems to have worked very well for some or meant no change for others.

  2. Jane Thomson says:

    And patriarchy- which harms women and men. Not to say that women are not bullies either but let’s look at the supremicist culture that rewards certain values and not others.
    Thanks Vittorio- your blog is great and you write so well. Keep going.

  3. Lesley Porter says:

    Hi Vittorio, an excellent depiction of life with bullies. We all have stories, for me, I just can not accept bullying any more. You put up with it and accept it and it goes on, so I found your description and the cure really accurate as I have been in all those workplaces….good, bad and really ugly. It is definitely in workplace policy that bullying will not be tolerated and it is tolerated because there are enablers. When place of business or an organisation set out remedies such as yours they prosper with talented productive people on the oars and real leaders at the helm.

  4. Hello Vittorio, I used to be a wardie whilst studying my social work degree until 2011. We met a couple of times. Now I work in the a community with migrants and refugees and uni these days. As an (ongoing) developing social worker I think it is important to read posts like this which are honest as well as share our own experiences as this enables others to speak up. With regards to bullying, it is a tough thing especially when working with clients who are faced with it in their workplace, and supporting them throughout it. It all comes down to knowing their rights in the workplace and understanding the definition of bullying. When I was a fresh into the workplace as a new graduate I was working for agencies that ironically stand up for human rights and social justice who practiced the complete opposite. Not being aware of my rights at the time has helped me discover them. Now I try to impart this knowledge into the community and informing them of resources like the Fair Work Ombudsman. But sometimes we need to go through these things where our workplace may not necessarily provide the relevant training (although it should be a standard throughout all workplace environments).

    Thanks for a great post – looking forward to reading more.


  5. Akivra Bouris says:

    Hi Vittorio,

    your 5 points are great. On the 1st one I would add that some people are bullied because in fact they’re good performers and are victims of tall poppy syndrome, I guess. In face I remember reading that victims tend to be good performers.

    In my experience both in EAP and out, victims are different to the group (racially, socially, physically, personally), stand out and become the ‘projected upon’ subject of the group’s anxiety and downright meanness.
    I had one guy not invited to a team building day, not given a temp acting up job in his manager’s absence where the job was given to someone way down the food chain. For no reason whatsoever he was also made to work in the secondary office further from his home after he had worked in the main office for years…. He was different because he was of Chinese background, quiet gentle natured and followed the rules unlike the loud dominant Anglo males he had the misfortune to work with.
    Bullying is interpersonal trauma, the most damaging kind of trauma. The most egregious form of bullying is the kind of “under the radar” kind, (as above examples) Excluding people or “playing hard ball” with the victim (making only the bullied person follow the rules, old rules, new -made -up -rules-just- for -them etc). “Under the radar” bullying is virtually impossible to take any kind of action on irrespective of the legal rights we think we have.

    Vexatious counter claims in response to disciplinary matters aside, we should start to believe the victim and not brush them off with “your perspective/their perspective, it’s just perspectives”. The “perspectives” defense retraumatises the victim and lets the perpetrator off the hook. Like in the old days Police would tell female victims of DV “it’s your word against his”. Well it’s not, it’s interpersonal violence. The Police are responsible for proving DV, getting the evidence, and management is responsible for proving bullying, not victims.

    I always thought the management of bullying and harrassment issues on their turf could at least become a performance indicator for all in management . Some kind of start in the Govt and NGO sectors at least.

  6. Leisa Ford says:

    Hi Vittorio…True and powerful words…it seems as though workplace bullying is increasing. My humble thoughts on this are around …excess workers…limited job opportunities/disposable workers/casualization of the SW workforce…funding limitations etc. In Australia the challenge to stand up and fight this scourge as victim i.e to try to get legal assistance is unattainable for most…lets face it who can afford legal assistance on a SW wage? No win no pay solicitors … is this something that they will take on? Not 100% sure but would welcome any info on this. Workplace policies are not worth the paper they are written on…management will work their way around them/change them to suit. Definitely ‘Under the Radar” traumatization.
    Thankyou Vittorio for your amazing articles/knowledge.. I want to make a difference somehow..:) unsure how.

    • vittorio1 says:

      Good point about the legal system Leisa. Lawyers don’t change cultures- good brave people willing to take collective action do. Workplaces increasingly convert people into robots- the bits of flesh at the end of the algorithm meeting KPI’s. Unions and professional associations need to combine forces. We must reinforce and reward compassionate culture wherever we find it.

      • Leisa Ford says:

        Yes…it must be a Macro focus Vittorio. How can we get the unions and PA’s to unite….genuine compassionate culture is hard to find though for sure. Eg. Org that won an ‘Employee of Choice’ award however has such a reputation of workplace bullying…does my head in…very insidious underhanded well practiced long-standing expertise in WPB. No accountability.

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