Dr Ngao Motsei,

This was clearly evident in a study I recently conducted, where respondents looked at me with utter surprise when I raised the subject of bullying at work. The typical response was: ‘but this is not kindergarten’, or something to that effect. Yet, the more we unpacked this phenomenon together, the more respondents began to realise the extent to which bullying exists within their organisations. This, in and of itself, points to the low levels of awareness around bullying in the South African workplace.

So what, exactly, is bullying? There are, in fact, a range of definitions and arguments about the scope and characteristics of workplace bullying; a fact which points to the infancy of the research. Notwithstanding countless, often country-specific definitions, workplace bullying is regarded as abusive conduct, and the mistreatment of others of people at work that causes harm.

Additionally, the general consensus is that bullying is characterised by repetition and duration (it occurs regularly over a period of at least six months), and escalation (usually accompanied by an increase in aggression). It is for this reason that single, isolated negative acts cannot be defined as bullying.

While bullying encompasses threatening, humiliating or intimidating actions, work interference and/or sabotage and verbal abuse, many of the respondents I spoke to were more familiar with the notion of harassment at work than with bullying. This is not peculiar to South Africa, but to fully understand the impact of workplace bullying it is important to separate it from the crowd and understand the particular influences at play. It is for this reason that I set out to understand the impact and cost of bullying on organisations as well as individuals by conducting in-depth interviews with 29 individuals, comprising HR professionals and targets of bullying.

My study sought out to investigate how targets, and/or ‘victims’ of bullying at work, HR professionals and bystanders perceived and defined bullying, and what they regarded as the organisational factors which made such bullying possible. Participants were drawn from private sector organisations in the financial services and manufacturing industries, and data were gathered through semi-structured interviews with targets and HR professionals, and from focus group discussions with bystanders. During the course of my research I was struck by comments such as the following:

Until two decades ago, bullying was largely associated with children terrorising each other in school playgrounds. In South Africa many companies still have that perception.

“My son is at pre-school and they talk about bullying; bulling has always been a term used at school. I have never really thought about it in a work environment, but as I am speaking to you now, I am thinking, ‘oh, my…, this is happening and we are not focussing on this because we don’t think of bullying in the workplace.”

Another comment touched on the difficulty defining workplace bullying:

“I battle with the difference between bullying and harassment. ‘When does it become bullying; and when has it moved from harassment or racism to becoming bullying?’ Maybe it is because we have not yet identified and defined it as bullying in the workplace.”

This comment talks to how South Africa has chosen to classify workplace bullying; with our HR policies and practices tending to incorporate it under the umbrella of harassment. The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), an independent dispute resolution body established in terms of the Labour Relations Act, 66 of 1995, defines harassment as:

  • Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone, particularly on gender, race or disability grounds;
  • Ridiculing or degrading someone – picking on them or setting them up to fail;
  • Exclusion or victimisation;
  • Unfair treatment, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
  • Overbearing supervision or other misuses of power or position;
  • Making threats/comments about job security without foundation;
  • Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism; and
  • Preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.

While this definition broadly accords with existing research on bullying, and even Collins dictionary’s view that a bully is “someone who hurts, persecutes or intimidates weaker people”, it fails to take into account the particular impact of bullying in a work context and how this creates power imbalances which, in turn, can perpetuate a culture of bullying. Critically, under South African law, specifically Section 6 of the Employment Equity Act, employees are protected from harassment, but no bullying-specific legislation exists. The concern is that, while bullying continues to be wrapped up in this broader definition, the ability to inforce policies and institute meaningful interventions is hampered.

The impact of workplace bullying

Almost all the people I spoke to agreed that the most distinguishing issue between bullying and harassment at work was the difficulty of proving bullying. Harassment is easy to prove because it is protected by law and, as a result, organisations which formed part of this study already had a Harassment Policy. However, in instances where an organisation does not share a common definition of bullying, employees are unlikely to recognise the negative behaviour associated with bullying, as, in fact, being bullying.

In the South African context it was particularly interesting to note the link between events at a country level and organisational behaviour regarded as bullying by participants. Essentially, almost all participants attributed the prevalence of bullying in the workplace to political power shifts and to changing social identities in South Africa.

The most salient social identity classifications in South Africa are race, gender, ethnicity and language. Respondents cited race and gender in almost all the discussions regarding how and why bullying took place within companies. This is not entirely surprising given that, historically, South African society classified its people by race and/or population groups, therefore race was found to be salient in participants’ descriptions of bullying behaviour. After all, at its most fundamental level, apartheid, like many other forms of fascism, was legalised, institutionalised bullying, the strong abusing the weak. Left unchecked, it became a crime against humanity.

Of all the social identity categories I found race and gender to be most salient in explaining bullying. Although it is important to note that participants also highlighted issues such as cultural beliefs, religion, sexual orientation, tenure and education. But race and gender remained the overarching reason which participants attributed to their bullying experiences.

Overall, the study’s findings demonstrate that race and gender-related “views of the world” and lenses are still deep-rooted in the psyche of many South Africans. The study’s findings also demonstrate how these racial and gender stereotypes and related conflicts spilled into the workplace in the form of bullying. This finding reflects the lingering effects of a society that was both racialized and male dominated during apartheid. The after-effects of apartheid are clearly still at play in South Africa’s workplaces, as this comment around the complexities stirred up by transformation policies highlighted:

“Most companies, including the company that I work for, drive transformation in that when we advertise positions, we openly state that preferred candidates will be AA (affirmative action) candidates or PDIs (previously disadvantaged individuals) because we want to promote equality and address the imbalances of the past. However, this is not taken well by some of the white colleagues who have occupied the targeted positions for a long time, and are used to a white-dominant work environment.”

Playing with words

The study also found that while participants confirmed the prevalence of bullying in their organisations, many reported finding it difficult to associate what was happening with the notion of bullying. Some of the targets preferred to use alternative terms, such as ‘injustice’ and ‘unfair labour practice’. The term ‘bullying’ appeared to carry a stigma of weakness, which explains why some participants appeared uncomfortable in being associated with the term or being referred to as the ‘victims’ of bullying.

It was interesting to note that the alternative terms used by participants to define bullying had a South African nuance. For example, it could be argued that the use of the term ‘injustice’ in reference to bullying is steeped in an apartheid past characterised by racially-based injustices.

Many people I spoke to also reported finding bullying difficult and complex to define and grasp. For example, a few attributed what others considered as bullying to tough management and/or a tough approach towards managing performance. Another complexity emerged around what they perceived as similarities and/or differences between bullying and other acts of negative behaviour at work, such as harassment and victimisation. Some perceived bullying as similar to, or as one of the elements of other negative acts at work, others felt it was different and separate.

The findings of this study have shown that bullying is a serious yet silent and relatively unacknowledged problem in the South African workplace. If this is true, one can reasonably conclude that many employees and employers in South Africa are unaware of the extent, nature and effects of bullying in their workplaces. And yet the impact is pervasive, as this respondent told me:

“They will scream at you; they will shout at you; they will shut you down, and then they will try and bully you into submission through your head of department.”

Another comment highlighted the pervasive nature of bullying within an organisation:

 “The culture of the organisation is [to] be scared, be scared; we are scared, and that’s how things have been and that’s how things are and that’s how things will be.”

While another offered a glimpse into the personal harm caused by such actions:

“There are many people who are unhappy, but they do not speak up. So a lot of people suffer in silence.”

Comments like this highlight the importance of understanding this phenomenon and the negative effect it has on staff morale, culture, values, productivity and, therefore, the bottom line. The solution might lie in education. Training HR and wellness professionals in detecting bullying, heightening the level of awareness of the phenomenon in organisations, and developing policies aimed at creating bully-free work environments may prove the key in exposing this pervasive phenomenon. It is my hope to continue to contribute to uncovering what remains an unrecognised, silent problem in the South African workplace.