Why passive bullying is still bullying

Dec 09, 2015

A zero-tolerance approach to bullying in all its forms – from easy-to-spot incidents to more subtle behaviour – is a characteristic of all mentally healthy workplaces, regardless of their size and industry.

Bullying is a serious issue. It dramatically raises stress levels for the person being bullied and is a major risk factor for developing mental health conditions.

Unsurprisingly, Beyond Blue’s State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia study found 76 per cent of employees said depression and anxiety – the most common forms of mental health conditions – are caused by excessive workplace stress. And it’s up to employers to keep a lid on workplace pressures. Under work health and safety legislation, businesses have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment for all employees.

Just a bit of friendly banter?

Workplace bullying – defined as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an individual – can take many forms. When we think about bullying, the first things that spring to mind are often the most extreme examples: sexual harassment; excessive criticism; intimidation or physical harassment such as pushing or threat of bodily harm; repeated hurtful remarks or verbal attacks; or the spreading of malicious rumours.

But bullying isn't always obvious, and leaders or line managers must also be able to recognise passive bullying behaviour.

Passive bullying can be harder to spot and can often be overlooked as a result. It can include subtle things such as offhand negative remarks or jokes; undermining colleagues through the quiet spread of misinformation; sabotaging a colleague’s work by withholding information; or deliberately socially excluding people. Bullying via email, text message, social media or instant messaging can also be harder for managers to pick up on.

People in leadership positions may also be guilty of passive bullying by allowing bullying behaviour to continue without intervening or reprimanding those responsible.

When viewed in isolation incidences of bullying may not seem serious, but over time they can erode self-confidence, raise stress levels, contribute to anxiety and depression, and lead to absenteeism and poor productivity.

The role of leaders

As leaders, there are many ways to identify and prevent passive bullying – and it’s critical to do so for the mental health of employees as well as the long-term success of your business.

The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia study found that 91 per cent of Australian employees believe mental health in the workplace is important, but only 52 per cent believe their workplace is mentally healthy.

Five steps to combat bullying

  • Set a zero-tolerance approach through a workplace bullying policy that establishes guidelines for employees to lodge complaints and have their claims investigated, and a clear process to resolve disputes through conciliation.
  • Promote an open-door policy to encourage employees to approach managers or human resources professionals to discuss bullying behaviour.
  • Communicate your approach to employees through newsletters, management meetings, communication throughout the office and by hosting in-house or online training sessions.
  • Ensure all leaders within the business are given appropriate training to recognise the signs of passive bullying, feel confident in enforcing the business’s anti-bullying policies, and understand that ignoring bullying behaviour will not be tolerated.
  • Finally, think about how you’ll measure your progress. You could look at the ways bullying claims are handled, levels of sick leave, and gauging staff morale and engagement through consultation, surveys or exit interviews.


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