It isn’t always easy getting people to work together. Though they may share similar goals, the methods they use to achieve these can differ.

Take the book group I belong to. Last time we met, Cyril suggested a book for our next meeting. Karin said it wasn’t book group material. She looked at the rest of us for our agreement. We nodded and Karin got her way.

Cyril exclaimed that he was bullied all day at work and now he got it at book group too! He said he couldn’t take it any more and headed for the door.

I went after him. He explained that work was the problem, not book group. I asked if he’d told his manager. He said his manager was the problem, so he felt that he had no one to talk to.

He looked so stressed I arranged to have coffee with him to discuss the bullying. Here’s what Cyril told me. I’ve changed some of the details to protect privacy.

Cyril is a public servant. For years his manager was a softly spoken, approachable, collegial person. He put up with Cyril’s idiosyncrasies: Cyril can be pedantic and, for lunch, he eats very smelly cheese sandwiches at his desk.

Three months ago, Cyril got a new manager. She is abrupt with him but polite with his colleagues; she gives him unreasonably short deadlines to complete his work; she watches him all the time so now he’s making mistakes; she unjustifiably criticises his work; and she has moved his desk away from the others, allegedly because of his smelly sandwiches. Cyril is apprehensive about going to work as he doesn’t know what fault she’ll find next. He asked me if he was being oversensitive.

There’s a useful legal test to determine if behaviour amounts to bullying. Bullying may be seen as something that someone repeatedly does or says to gain power and dominance over another, including any action or implied action, such as threats, intended to cause fear and distress.

The behaviour has to be repeated on more than one occasion and there must be evidence that those involved intended or felt fear. Depending upon the work environment, any of these might be bullying:

  • Assault, pushing, using abusive language, threatening to kill.
  • Talking down to someone, public reprimands.
  • Unnecessary phone calls or text messages about work outside work time.
  • Unwarranted interference with an employee’s work.
  • Isolating an employee, or deliberate bad treatment that is different from how others are treated.

But these might not:

  • Abrupt, to-the-point, or forthright communications.
  • Justified criticism and feedback.

So it seemed that Cyril was being bullied. If he wants the situation to improve, he’ll need to tell his employer about his concerns. Then his employer will have an obligation to investigate and, if there is bullying, take steps to prevent it.

Allegations of bullying that are ignored expose an employer to claims of constructive dismissal, unjustified disadvantage, and breach of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.

A prudent employer should have a bullying-prevention policy that covers how to report bullying; access to counselling for stressed employees; confidentiality; and a process to be followed in responding to and investigating claims. It is also advisable to have clear lines of authority and duties in written position descriptions.

I sent Cyril back to work much happier. He’s going to arrange a meeting with HR to tell them about the bullying. Now I just need to get the book group to agree that Cyril can choose our next title.

By Penelope Ryder-Lewis, first published in The Dominion Post

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