Addressing workplace bullying: a call to action for HR executives


Workplace bullying jeopardises not only individual wellbeing, but also organisational effectiveness, writes HR professional and MD of Paradigm Management Consulting, Grant Saptoe.

In South Africa’s fast-changing workplace, fostering a healthy and inclusive environment is paramount for organisational success. However, an issue that continues to challenge this objective is workplace bullying, which is a leading cause of stress, lost productivity, and a barrier to effective workplace wellness.

Bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour that is directed towards a worker or group of employees with the intention of humiliating, denigrating or belittling that ultimately has an impact on the health and safety of the individual.

Sadly, most people still view bullying as something that only happens on the school playground, but this could not be further from the truth.

Bullying can be a devastating and life-changing experience for those who experience it. It was always camouflaged as something else and masked with words such as harassment, narcissism, toxicity and not called what it actually is: bullying.

The effect of workplace bullying on the individual and the organisation

Workplace bullying has a detrimental impact on a person’s psyche and overall wellbeing. Victims of workplace bullying suffer from impaired cognitive ability resulting in diminished ability to work effectively. Some employees may experience low self-esteem and self-worth, doubt their competence and lack confidence, which may lead them to question their career choice and abandon their faith in their employer.

The long-term effects of bullying on the victim, if incorrectly addressed by the employer and left untreated by the victim, could also lead to various physical symptoms such as digestive disorders, high blood pressure, higher risk of diabetes, strokes, heart attack and – in severe cases – lead to suicide.

One of the most damning impacts of workplace bullying on the organisation emanates from a decrease in productivity and morale, increased employee absences, higher staff turnover, poor team dynamics, severe reputational and cultural damage, and difficulty attracting and retaining high performing talent.

According to a report from the Australian Human Rights Commission and Society for Human Resources Management’s (SHRM) 2019 literature review, the financial cost of workplace bullying is truly exorbitant and cannot be ignored any longer. The reports state that developed countries such as the US report losses estimated at more than $36 billion, UK £36 billion, Australia $36 billion, and South Africa undisclosed at this stage.

What can HR do to change the narrative?

As HR executives, you play a pivotal role in shaping the culture of your organisation and ensuring that it aligns with principles of fairness, respect, and dignity. Addressing workplace bullying requires a comprehensive understanding of its nuances and a commitment to creating a workplace where employees can thrive without fear or intimidation. Below are a few go-to steps:

  • Ensure top management buy-in to support the zero-tolerance bullying/cyberbullying culture through well-documented policies and action.
  • The organisation must reinforce the message that perpetrators will be dealt with in terms of company and local law.
  • Ensure staff are trained to identify and report bullying and perceived instances of bullying.
  • They should be open and approachable and ensure effective reporting mechanisms are put in place when bullying is raised.
  • HR should ensure the dispute resolution mechanisms are effective and they should ensure conflict is resolved before it escalates into a more serious situation.
  • The organisation must also act swiftly and take every incident seriously, whether perceived or real.
  • Arrange for specialised response handling training for HR, managers and executives.
  • Bystander training should be incorporated.

For further insight, HR should embark on workplace bullying risk assessments to determine the levels of toxicity and perceived levels of toxicity in the organisation.

Trained HR professionals should be quick to identify unhealthy communication patterns in the organisation as well as any rumour-mongering to seek out toxic leaders and employees alike contributing to the toxic culture of the organisation, and implement measures to combat and eradicate this cancerous workplace pandemic.

We are currently protected by the Code of Good Practice on the prevention and elimination of harassment in the workplace as of 18 March 2022, mandating all employers to act expeditiously on all incidents of bullying and harassment, and to train all staff on workplace bullying and harassment.

HR has, however, successfully implemented workplace wellness initiatives, with many companies citing higher productivity levels and happier workplaces. There has been a marked focus on mental health initiatives and dealing with worker stress as global trends indicate workers will seek employers who support mental health initiatives.

HR will continue to be enablers of change and add shareholder value through focused efforts on environmental, social and governance issues, while navigating new skills required for the future of work. This involves proactively promoting mental, physical, and financial wellbeing of staff, and monitoring the efficacy of said initiatives.


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