by Wela Mlokoti


When colleagues become foes


When we think ‘bullying’, we imagine a group of schoolchildren on the playground, taunting one of their classmates. This perception likely stems from the fact that bullying is well documented and spoken about, often in the media, as it pertains to children, and is generally associated with childhood teasing and physical fights.

Conversely, the bullying of and by adults in social and professional settings is not spoken about as often, though traditional notions of the concept have and continue to expand.

What is workplace bullying?

There is no legal definition of workplace bullying. However, in the United Kingdom, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has defined workplace bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, and abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate and denigrate or injure the people being bullied”. Workplace bullies generally manipulate or terrorise those with statuses below or equivalent to themselves, and may even intimidate superiors by threatening to resign at a critical point. The hallmarks of bullying are intention and repetition, and bullying is limited to a deliberate pattern of behaviour repeated consistently over time.

Examples of workplace bullying include, but are not limited to:

  • Overbearing supervision/unfair and unwanted criticism;
  • Being overworked and expecting unreasonable response times;
  • Being unfairly passed over for promotion/denied training opportunities;
  • Setting one up for failure (by setting unrealistic deadlines, giving no or unclear instructions, etc.);
  • Exclusion and isolation (events, lunches and drinks, relevant meetings, important emails, etc.);
  • Having one’s abilities undermined/being publicly criticised, belittled or teased;
  • Having malicious rumours spread about one/casting aspersions on the character and work ethic of an employee; and
  • Making threats or comments about job security without foundation.

Why would someone be a bully?

People tend to assume that bullies have low self-esteem, but their behaviour is actually an exertion of power in response to internalised shame. Those who behave like bullies tend to have high self-esteem and hubristic pride. They may present as extremely confident, sociable and charming, which makes it more difficult for people to believe you if you eventually speak up. And they attack others in a bid to remain unaware of their feelings. From childhood, people have different methods of coping with shame, which later become personality traits in adulthood. These coping mechanisms typically fall into these categories: attacking oneself, attacking others, avoidance and withdrawal. When bullies are threatened with shame (such as potentially looking incompetent in the workplace), they will attack others. In extreme cases, bullies become narcissistic and deal with their deep-rooted shame by continually attacking others. The attack of others overshadows their own shame and enhances their sense of power. Though bullies will diminish others in order to make themselves feel better, they are generally not aware of their shame but, instead, use their behaviour to keep their feelings of inadequacy hidden. If a bully attacks a co-worker and that co-worker responds similarly, the bully is likely to focus on and be outraged by the actions of the co-worker, with no insight into the fact that the co-worker’s actions are in response to their initial attack.

The consequence of workplace bullying is that it causes severe stress to the victim, which, in turn, can impact their performance at work. It can lead to stress-related health problems, including depression and in some cases, even suicide. Workplace bullying has also been linked to increased absenteeism and decreased productivity.

What should I do if I am being bullied at work?

  • First, consider whether the situation can be resolved informally. For example, you could discuss your concerns with your immediate supervisor, an HR representative or a trade union official. Be discerning when choosing the person with whom to speak, as they may very well be part of the problem.
  • Document everything! Make sure to keep a diary of events where you feel bullied or harassed, as well as emails and other communications that demonstrate unwanted conduct. This evidence will be useful when you are asked to recall instances of bullying. It is also useful to show that a series of seemingly isolated incidents (which, when viewed individually, may appear “trivial”) is actually part of a wider campaign against you.
  • Unite with your co-workers: often the victims of bullying become isolated, and grouping together with your co-workers can provide support for your feelings. Through joining others and discussing the bully’s behaviour, co-workers can contain the bully who, once their actions have been exposed, will lose the power to terrorise and face the threat of isolation.
  • If the matter cannot be resolved informally, consider escalating matters and lodging a formal grievance. Your employer should have a grievance policy that explains how the process works. Following the lodgement of your grievance, your employer should investigate the matter and hold a meeting. If the grievance is not upheld, you have the right to lodge an appeal. If it is upheld, the person bullying you could be disciplined or even dismissed.

What can employers do to combat workplace bullying?

  • Have an anti-bullying policy or organisational statement that defines what will not be tolerated in the workplace.
  • Have clear procedures for victims of harassment to lay complaints when they feel that they are victims of bullying or harassment.
  • Conduct an awareness campaign that defines what is considered to be workplace bullying and also outlines how incidences of bullying will be dealt with.
  • Take immediate action to investigate claims of bullying or other forms of harassment.
  • Include bullying and other forms of harassment in the Employee Code of Conduct, and make sure that employees are aware of the sanctions that would be imposed on bullies if you discipline them.

Workplace bullying from a legal standpoint South Africa

In South Africa, bullying is not specifically referred to in any labour law legislation including the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, or the Employment Equity Act.

However, the Employment Equity Act does have a prohibition against unfair discrimination based on race, gender, family responsibility, HIV status and any other arbitrary ground. The Act goes further to state that the harassment of an employee on any of the aforementioned grounds constitutes unfair discrimination and is prohibited.

In a recent case, an employee referred a complaint of bullying to the CCMA as an unfair dismissal claim. The employee alleged that her employer’s HR manager was bullying her and that although she was ultimately dismissed for medical incapacity, the employer had sought this as a convenient method to get rid of her after she lodged a grievance about the bullying. The CCMA confirmed that bullying is a form of harassment and that a failure by employers to deal with bullying in the workplace can expose them to up to 24 months’ remuneration if the employee is found to have been dismissed due to the bullying, and unlimited compensation claims if the employee is found to have been the victim of unfair discrimination due to the bullying.


In a two-month trial that now draws to a close, former executives at France Télécom (now known as Orange) could face prison over organised workplace harassment that led to a spate of staff suicides a decade ago. French state prosecutors have urged the court to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and hand down the maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines. The case could set a world precedent with company managers held personally criminally liable for strategic harassment aimed at forcing workers to resign. This case is the first time that a blue-chip company listed on the French stock exchange could have its managers held criminally responsible for implementing a strategy of bullying even if they had not dealt directly with the staff affected.

Things to remember if you are being bullied at work

  • Do not blame yourself: when we are being bullied, we tend to start to believe that there is something wrong with us as employees—perhaps even as people. We start to believe what the bully is saying about us and we blame ourselves. Remember that, despite what the bully might say, no one deserves to get bullied. No one is perfect and if you are trying your best to do a good job, that is all that anyone can ask of you. If they are unhappy with some aspect of your job performance, they are obligated to tell you in a professional, direct way, not to intimidate you into not believing in yourself.
  • Do not assume that things will get better: it can often be difficult to determine whether a situation is, in fact, bullying or just normal work relations. But if you really are getting bullied at work, it is unlikely that the situation will improve without intervention. Bullies are often serial offenders and will continue to bully others for as long as they are allowed to get away with their inappropriate behaviour.
  • Do not wait too long to ask for help: get help as soon as you realise what is happening. Waiting in this situation does not help at all and you need to bolster your strength by getting support while you still have some confidence left. The longer you are bullied, the more difficult it is to reach out.

Wela Mlokoti

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