Sometimes there’s a fine line between constructive criticism and bullying – between being the boss and being a bully. What should you do when your manager crosses that line?
Does your boss send shivers up your spine? Do they remind you a bit too much of Mr Burns from The Simpsons, or Meryl Streep’s vindictive character from The Devil Wears Prada? Many employees feel slightly afraid of their bosses, whether it’s because of the way they act or simply the fact that they can exercise authority over them.
But what should you do in extreme situations, when you think your boss genuinely doesn’t like you and is targeting you? If you’re feeling harassed and unsafe at work, it’s important to understand the definition of workplace bullying, to have some coping strategies and to know where to turn for help.
Do any of these sound familiar?
- Your boss buries you under paperwork on a daily basis, while other members of your team are ‘busy’ playing ping-pong.
- You come back from holidays to find out you’ve been assigned a mentor, one who has significantly less experience at your job than you do.
- In meetings, your boss regularly calls out your mistakes in front of your colleagues.
If you’re finding yourself a victim of these – or similar – behaviours at work, you may have a boss who has bullying tendencies. But for the behavior to be truly bullying behavior, it must fulfil three requirements. It must:
- occur while the worker is ‘at work’
- be repeated, unreasonable behaviour, and
- create a risk to the health and safety of the employee (or group of employees) being bullied.
A lot of people come to see me and tell me that they’re being bullied at work. But when I dig down a little deeper, I’ll find the conduct doesn’t satisfy all three elements. Perhaps the conduct hasn’t been repeated, or it hasn’t been unreasonable. Their boss may, in fact, be carrying out reasonable management action in a reasonable manner. Again, it’s important that the behaviour satisfies all three elements. For instance, consider the following:
Your manager has asked you to complete a certain set of tasks by a specific deadline. When you don’t meet those deadlines, your manager then follows up, asking when you will deliver the work. You give a date, but again, you miss the deadline. Your boss then pulls you into a meeting and says, “I’m not happy. I set you tasks. We agreed on deadlines and you haven’t stuck to them.”
That’s not bullying. That’s managing an employee in a reasonable way.
Five ways to deal with bullies
If your manager’s behaviour does meet the three requirements and you’re feeling harassed and unsafe at work, there are steps you can take.
- If possible, it’s always preferable for you and your boss to communicate with each other about any issues between you. Ask your boss for some time to discuss your concerns, and explain why you don’t think a particular instance (or instances) warranted the reaction you received. Express an interest in improving the relationship, and ask for guidance on ways the two of you can work better together. An open discussion should always be the first port of call if you’re comfortable and confident enough to have it.
- Make yourself aware of the bullying, equal opportunity and harassment policies in your workplace. You should feel free to challenge your boss (or any other employees, for that matter) if he or she is breaching those policies. Remind them of their obligations and your rights under the policies, and provide some examples of why you feel aggrieved or harassed.
- Of course, if you feel intimidated or your boss really is out to get you, numbers one and two are probably not viable options for you. Your next alternative is to approach HR about the issues you’re having with your boss. If the problem is severe enough, your HR department might suggest making a complaint or participating in mediation or structured facilitation to address both your concerns. A mediator will try to help you come to some agreement as to how you and your boss can work together in future.
- If you have no luck with the above, if the conduct has been going on for a while and if you truly don’t feel like the criticism or conduct that your boss is levelling at you is unreasonable, you should seek legal advice. A lawyer can help you work out whether it really is bullying, and discuss the options for further action, including an application to the Fair Work Commission.
- The bullying jurisdiction at the Fair Work Commission allows individuals to apply for a stop bullying order (Here, too, a lawyer can help you, or you can lodge the application on your own.) The Fair Work Commission can determine whether bullying has occurred and can then issue orders to address the bullying conduct.
As an employee, you have the right to feel safe at work. Likewise, your employer has an obligation to provide you with a safe workplace. Don’t be another bad sequel to Horrible Bosses. If your boss isn’t fulfilling their obligation and you feel threatened, it’s time to arm yourself with information and roll the final credits on bullying.