Reduce the risk of baseless bullying complaints

Entrenched in a culture of workplace politics, or could it be you’re picking on me again?

Its time to take a reality check. Back in the early 1980s virtually nobody talked about adults being bullied. Yet today, if all the claims about Australia’s epidemic of adult bullying are to be believed, the nation is suffering from a perilous condition that threatens to undermine its way of life.

A seminar advertising a course on managing workplace bullying in Brisbane this month informs potential customers this is a “serious issue” costing Australian businesses more than $36 billion. It cites American research to suggestthe epidemic affects 55 per cent of all workplaces. Others insist the figures are even higher. According to the Australian Psychological Society, a staggering 70 per cent of employees are, or have been, bullied.

Not a month goes by without another alarming report on the spread of this disease. In May, a book titled Bullying of Staff in Schools insisted that 80 per cent of the teachers interviewed stated they had been bullied by parents. To make matters worse, 70 per cent of them were bullied by their principals, whose actions were even more harmful than those of parents. It appears institutions of education are particularly susceptible to the contagion of this disease. In a staff survey at the University of NSW, published in May, 68 per cent of respondents said they had been bullied and 83 per cent had witnessed such behaviour. Last month it was the turn of police. According to a government survey nearly one-third of Victoria Police members have witnessed bullying at work and one-fifth have directly experienced it.

Predictably, the government has signalled its intention to expand workplace bullying laws.

My only surprise is that reports of rates of bullying are not even higher — say 95-110 per cent. The way campaigners have defined this pathology means virtually every challenging and unhappy experience can be rebranded as bullying. So according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, “bullying behaviour can range from very obvious verbal or physical assault to very subtle psychological abuse”. How subtle? According to some bullying experts, the more subtle the more pernicious the act.

Nor does bullying have to be intentional. The Australian Medical Association states that “sometimes bullying is deliberate and intended to make a person upset”. But it adds even behaviour that is not deliberate but upsets someone can still be labelled as bullying. In other words, bullying is about how you feel rather than what someone intended to do to you.

A close inspection of the claims made about bullying indicates that what they refer to are everyday troubles of human existence. Workplace bullying covers a multitude of sins. Virtually any negative, uncivil encounter can be, and is, defined as bullying. The vast majority of experiences branded as bullying are what used to be called workplace politics. Bullying can mean deliberative destructive and threatening behaviour. But in most instances it refers to the normal tensions and conflicts integral to the life of work. Unpleasant gestures, flaunting status, unwanted eye contact, ignoring a person’s contribution, pulling rank or making jokes at someone’s expense are now experienced as bullying. In effect experts have redefined elementary forms of unpleasant and insensitive behaviour as bullying.

The expansion of the definition of bullying is paralleled by the inflation of its impact and harm. Campaigners now claim that the danger is not confined to direct forms of bullying but also to indirect ones. Witnessing a colleague being bullied can also have an emotionally distressing effect.

So why have the existential problems associated with the troubles of adult human relationships been reinterpreted through the prism of the schoolyard bully? The term bully speaks to a culture that increasingly finds it difficult to draw a distinction between the behaviour and feelings of children and those of adults. The application of the term bullying to biologically mature people speaks to a culture that infantilises its adults. That is why the workplace is increasingly subjected to emotional standards formerly associated with the playground.

What the bullying industry has sought is to lower the threshold of acceptable pressure, stress and uncertainty in the workplace. The diagnosing of assertive management styles, plain speaking, undiplomatic behaviour, sarcasm or normal bitchiness as claims for legal intervention and for financial resources implies adults possess the emotional and moral resources formerly associated with children.

Whatever the alleged costs of bullying, the price society pays for allowing its adults to be infantilised is far higher. The effect of normalising workplace bullying is to incite more and more people to interpret their feelings of rejection and disappointment through the idiom of bullying. Moreover, through the institutionalisation of the belief that individuals should not be expected to cope with adverse encounters at work individuals are likely to interpret unpleasant events asthreats to their health. One of the long term consequences of society’s obsession with the threat of bullying is that it is likely to diminish the capacity of its people to deal with the uncertainties of life.

For someone who is confronted with adversity at work, bullying provides a personal story through which they gain meaning of their predicament by blaming it on others. Its advocates claim raising awareness about bullying will improve the life in the workplace. In reality it will have the opposite effects. Once people are incited to regard themselves as lacking the capacity to deal creatively with negative encounters they will perceive an ever-expanding variety of experiences as bullying.

In such circumstances, people will become increasingly reluctant to speak out and even more inhibited about criticising one other.

When humour comes with a health warning even friendly banter becomes a casualty of the depressing bullying mania.

7/7/12 –