As the coronavirus pandemic has swept through communities, humans have again proven our species’ adaptability. Many organisations, individual leaders, and businesspeople worldwide, South Africa included, are going out of their way where possible to ensure their employees’ security in very trying times. While it is true that some companies are laying people off, other companies have stepped up.

Within just days and weeks, countries and organisations pulled together to create new plans to counter the spreading pandemic. Within a short space of time, the majority of people around the world had received critical healthcare advice to help stop the virus from spreading, from the importance of hand-washing (and how to do it properly) to social distancing guidelines. I believe we can learn from this response and apply the lessons in other spheres of life. I’d like to look at workplace behaviours, specifically.

...we can learn from this response... 

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a lot of commentary in both practitioner and academic circles about ‘leading in times of crisis’. My favourite response by far is by Tom Peters, author of the book In Search of Excellence, when he said, “Lead well before the crisis!” As a ‘student’ of leadership and advocate of civility in the workplace, leading well, for me, entails mutual respect, concern and care for others.

However, looking back at previous crises that galvanised humanity, we see that often, when ‘normal’ times return, we slip back into old ways, including unhealthy or bad behaviours. In the context of the work environment, these may include workplace aggression, bullying and general incivility to our co-workers. To make sure that we do not go back to these, let’s first understand what bullying in the workplace is, and is not, and then we can consider some strategies to prevent and deal with it.

Understanding workplace bullying

One of the problems with workplace bullying is that, unlike harassment, there is no universally accepted definition of the phenomenon. However, while a universal definition does not exist, frequency or repetitiveness, severity, and power differential, seem to have garnered widespread agreement as being key to defining bullying in the workplace. For bullying to happen, the negative acts must occur over a sustained period of time, for example, at least six months. A once-off, isolated, negative act therefore does not constitute bullying.

The other problem with bullying is that it can be subtle, making it difficult to detect. In some cases, targets of bullying are often unaware that what they are experiencing is indeed bullying.

Examples of subtle bullying behaviours include the following:

  • Withholding important information, access to training, or other necessary resources, thus setting someone up for failure.
  • Unwarranted and overbearing supervision, monitoring and/or micro-managing.
  • Taking credit for work done but blaming the victim and never taking responsibility when things do not go well.
  • Social exclusion or marginalisation.
  • Reducing the value of work produced.

Subtle bullying refers to acts that are not immediately apparent and can thus be interpreted and understood in different ways.

 Bringing humanity back to workplaces in the new normal

The phrase “the new normal” is fast becoming ubiquitous, but with good reason. We are all uncertain what our changed world will look like once things settle down, and we are scrambling to make sense of our futures. As we take time to relook at the ways we work, whether it be remote working or redesigning office spaces, it is equally important to take the spirit of ‘we are in this together’ shown by leaders of organisations and sectors of our societies into our new normal.

There are lessons organisations can learn from the efforts and commitment to flattening the coronavirus curve that they can apply to preventing the culture of bullying from rearing its ugly head (and potentially going unnoticed while all attention is on managing and containing the coronavirus crisis).

Just as coronavirus awareness campaigns are making us constantly mindful of basic hygiene and social distancing practices, there are specific protocols and/or regimens organisations can put in place to eliminate bullying in the workplace. If implemented, these will ensure that, post Covid-19, the new normal looks very different from the ‘old ways’. This is an opportunity for organisations to change things for good, and for ever.

Putting the coronavirus pandemic lessons to good use

Workplace bullying, like a virus, if not detected and contained, can spread like wildfire. This is especially true in South Africa where there is limited awareness and research on workplace bullying. There are lessons to be had from the coronavirus response and prevention strategies that organisations can apply to prevent bullying and/or flatten the bullying curve. These efforts must be led from the top.

Lessons from the response to coronavirus

Seven steps to bully-proof your workplace

1. Take a stand against workplace bullying by developing and enforcing anti-bullying policies. The policies should, inter alia:

  • Include definitions, causes and features of bullying.
  • Develop and document procedures for reporting bullying, as well as guidelines on what employees must do if they suspect they are being bullied.
  • Protect employees from victimisation for speaking out against bullying when they feel bullied and/or where they are witness to someone else being bullied.

2. Relentlessly communicate the policies and procedures to ensure that employees know everything they need to know about bullying, including its features, what to do, where to go, and the procedures to report the bullying.

3. Promote positive leadership by training key managers on communicating effectively and on how to effectively engage employees in decision-making.

4. Create a climate for honest and regular two-way feedback delivered in a respectful way.

5. Train key staff on the phenomenon to enable them to recognise the signs of bullying, and what they can do to prevent and respond to bullying when it is reported.

6. Develop confidential reporting procedures for when bullying occurs and treat all reported cases as serious.

7. Communicate back to both bullying targets and those who reported witnessing the bullying. 

While I have drawn parallels between how the coronavirus pandemic and its aftereffects are managed and how leaders can respond to workplace bullying, I am not conflating the two.

As the world gets to grips with the devastating impact of Covid-19, which includes millions of people losing their jobs as economies plummet, and families and friends not being able to be with loved ones in their hour of need, as well as employees’ stress levels peak due to job insecurity, now is the time to bring humanity back to the workplace by putting employees at the heart of organisations and create respectful, bully-free work environments.

 Dr. Ngao Motsei is full time faculty at GIBS. She also heads up a team and leadership development coaching consultancy trading as MyPortfolioLife and is an ICF-accredited executive coach. Before founding MyPortfolioLife, Ngao was previously an executive at a JSE-listed financial services company, and a leadership practice partner at Heidrick and Struggles' Johannesburg office. 

Ngao also serves as a non-executive director to companies where she brings a people and ethics-centric focus to driving governance and organisational performance.

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