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Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys

We are all familiar with the term “bullying” and all too often images of learners who are bullied by teasing, isolation and physical assaults, come to mind. When leaving school, bullied individuals think that they are now entering a life without bullies. Think again. Believe it or not, bullying in the workplace is something which occurs quite frequently. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, more than 60 million working people in the USA are affected by bullying (www.healthline.com/health/workplace bullying#signs).

Although bullying in the workplace does not have a legal definition in South Africa, harassment does. Harassment in the workplace is not confined to sexual harassment, but can take many other forms. According to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) “harassment” includes bullying (CCMA, 2018).

What is workplace bullying?
Vince Scopelliti (2019), a lawyer who also has a degree in Psychology and who is the Managing Director of WISE Workplace, reminds us that workplace bullying is harmful and targeted behaviour that includes:

  • Targeted practical jokes and pranks;
  • being purposely misled about work duties, such as incorrect deadlines or unclear directions;
  • continually being denied requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason;
  • threats, humiliation and other verbal abuse;
  • withholding information (relevant to a person’s employment or role);
  • humiliation and ridicule;
  • removing responsibility from a person who has earned it;
  • spreading gossip or rumours;
  • ignoring or excluding a worker;
  • making personal insults;
  • shouting at or berating a person;
  • intimidating behaviour;
  • providing hints or signals that a person should resign or abandon their job;
  • reminding a worker constantly of errors or mistakes they have made previously;
  • persistently criticising an employee;
  • imposing unreasonable deadlines;
  • making unfounded allegations;
  • excessively monitoring an employee’s work;
  • putting pressure on an employee not to claim entitlements such as annual leave, sick leave or family responsibility leave;
  • teasing an employee;
  • imposing unreasonable workloads;
  • making threats of violence or engaging in actual abuse; and/or
  • giving overly harsh or unjust criticism.

However, being criticised or monitored does not always refer to bullying. Examples are, objective and constructive criticism and disciplinary action directly related to workplace behaviour or job performance are not considered bullying. But criticism meant to intimidate, humiliate or single out someone without reason would be considered bullying (www.health-line.com/health/workplace bullying#signs).

The bullies
Prof Renata Schoeman, a psychiatrist and associate professor in leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School said that psychopaths are not just found in serial killer movies and crime novels. They stalk corporate corridors too, where their trail of destruction might not include murder but can mean the death of productivity, motivation and profits. She refers to the so-called "corporate
psychopaths" and bully bosses. According to her, it is often the leaders who should be at the forefront of reducing workplace conditions that lead to stress and burn-out, who contribute to the problem, rather than to the solution. "We are not talking about the 'difficult' boss here, but the boss who is a bully, many of whom could be defined as corporate psychopaths," she explains (Schoeman, 2019).

Downwards bullying (by bullying bosses) can take many forms. It can include things such as overloading a person with work in the hope that they will fail, or constantly criticising them regarding their work performance, but at the same time not criticising any specific aspect of the work performance. This bullying is done in such a subtle way that nothing specific can be pinpointed and it usually ends where the employee simply resigns without having sufficient grounds or substance to bring a dispute of constructive dismissal against the employer (www.labourguide.co.za/discipline dismissal/373 harassment in the workplace).

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[This is an extract from an article published in Servamus: October 2020. If you are interested in reading the rest of this insightful article where we explain the different types of workplace bullies; the cost of bullying and what the law says about workplace bullying, please contact Servamus’s offices via e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phoning (012) 345 4660. Ed.]

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