Workplace bullying can be executed in a variety of ways. It can take place in person through physical or verbal abuse, or remotely via email, text messages, internet chat rooms, instant messaging or other social media channels. In some cases, workplace bullying can continue outside of the workplace. It can be directed at a single employee or group of employees and can be perpetrated by a single employee or group of workers. So, bullying has the potential to go way beyond affecting the wellbeing and productivity of an individual employee. Bullying can have a snowball effect, leading to a decline in a teams’ and departments’ performance – to valuable employees leaving the organisation and the creation of a hostile work environment.

What is bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behavior directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to their health and wellbeing. It includes a wide range of insulting, demeaning or intimidating behavior.  It constitutes a psychological hazard that has the potential to harm a person and put them at psychological risk, for example, by causing stress, lowering their self-esteem or eroding self-confidence. Bullying may include systematic negative acts that escalate over the course of employment, through which the targeted employee ends up in an inferior position.

There are several forms of bullying that can occur in the work environment:

Direct bullying will generally take place face-to-face (in person or via electronic communication) and is apparent to anyone witnessing it. This includes acts of verbal abuse, threatening behavior and intimidation, and encompassed bullying tactics that range from belittling remarks to public humiliation and inaccurate accusations.

While witnesses may be willing to actively support the employee being bullied, it is often very difficult for them to stand up against the bully as they may fear retaliation or fear losing their job if they do not have the authority to intervene. Additionally, persons who witness such bullying may either ignore it or perceive it as “normal behavior”, especially when it is ongoing within an organisation without consequences or the perpetrator being held accountable.

Indirect bullying entails behavior that hurts or humiliates, but which is often more covert and subtle. It is not always immediately acknowledged as bullying and takes place through emotional manipulation. These are bullying tactics that can be harder to identify, and in a “digital world” can be done anonymously and discreetly where the target might not immediately find out about the bullying. 

Here are several examples of behaviors that may be can be considered as workplace bullying if they are repeated, unreasonable and create a risk to health and safety:

  • Abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
  • Aggressive and intimidating conduct
  • Belittling or humiliating comments
  • Victimisation
  • Practical jokes or initiation
  • Unjustified criticism or complaints
  • Deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities
  • Withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
  • Setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
  • Setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level
  • Denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to the detriment of the worker spreading misinformation or malicious rumors
  • Changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to deliberately inconvenience a particular worker or workers

What are the effects of workplace bullying?

The effects of workplace bullying don’t end when an employee leave the office. Bullying in the workplace can increase the risk for negative physical health effects and lead to decreased mental wellbeing for both the victims of bullying and their co-workers.  Bullying can cause physical health problems that include headaches, higher blood pressure, changes in appetite or interrupted sleep patterns. People who are bullied at work may also experience psychological symptoms.

These include:

  • Mood changes
  • Panic attacks
  • Increased stress
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression

Bullying is a form of harassment in South Africa

Bullying is seen as unfair labor practice. The new code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace, which took effect in South Africa on 18 March 2022, has placed a duty of care on employers to play their part in preventing bullying in the workplace. The Code describes harassment, among others, as “unwanted conduct which impairs dignity and which creates a hostile or intimidating work environment for one or more employees”.

The Code applies to all employers (including trade unions) in all sectors, including the informal sector. It also applies to anyone having dealings with an employer, e.g. customers, clients, suppliers and others and includes volunteers, job seekers, job applicants and trainees within its protective ambit.

The Code highlights that employers are under an obligation in terms of section 60 of the EEA to take proactive and remedial steps to prevent all forms of harassment in the workplace. Employers who fail to take adequate steps to eliminate bullying within a reasonable time of being notified about alleged acts of bullying by an employee may be found liable in terms of section 60 of the EEA.

Employers are, in terms of the EEA, also vicariously, or indirectly, liable for the wrongful acts of their employees if these are committed in the course and scope of employment, unless it can be proved that the employer has taken all reasonable steps to prevent this happening.

Employees who are found guilty of harassment including bullying, may, in certain circumstances, and depending on the severity of the conduct that is complained of, be summarily dismissed.

Click here to read The Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace.

What should employers do when dealing with incidents of bullying?

Employers must take steps to maintain a work environment in which bullying does not take place. There must be stipulated measures and actions in place that discourage bullying and deal with it quickly and effectively if it happens.

Specifically, employers must:

  • Take a clear, zero-tolerance stand against bullying
  • Ensure up-to-date policies and procedures that address issues related to employees respecting one another in both the physical or remote workplace
  • Provide and promote easy access to impartial communication channels and support systems
  • Process complaints fairly by implementing a standard investigation process to evaluate reported incidents without Victimisation

 by EAPA-SA | Jun 21, 2022 | Articles