Bullying in the workplace
Employers must organize activities and make adjustments to their operations to prevent employees from being subjected to bullying in the workplace. If bullying still occurs, it is important that employees know how to report the matter to their employers, and for employers to follow up on all such reports.
What is bullying?
The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority applies the following definition: Bullying is when a person, repeatedly and over time, is systematically subjected to negative actions from one or more persons, and finds such actions difficult to defend against. This means bullying is a form of harassment.
Bullying can take many forms. Sometimes it takes the form of direct, overt or aggressive actions, but it could also be more indirect, covert or discrete. The offence can be aimed both at the victim as a person, or at the victim’s situation at work.
For example, bullying could entail the employee is being
- tormented or teased
- discriminated against
- excluded from social networks in the workplace
- excluded from learning important information
- given unreasonable deadlines
- given meaningless tasks
- unfairly or excessively accused of doing poor work
The reason bullying is difficult to defend against, is that there is often a perceived imbalance in strength or power between the parties involved. This imbalance could be related to organizational, economic, social or personal matters. In addition, bullying can be draining over time, which would make it more difficult to stand against or tolerate the actions.
Bullying is a serious problem in the working environment and can be quite burdensome. For those affected, it can lead to severe psychological or somatic health problems, and it may reduce employee satisfaction and dedication to the job. For the enterprise, this could lead to increased absences due to sickness, reduced productivity and loss of reputation, and it may even contribute to increased employee turnover – with the costs this entails.
In order for something to be classified as bullying, the negative actions must be systematic in nature and take place over an extended period of time. If an employee is subjected to individual negative actions, however, these may be classified as other types of harassment.
If the parties disagree, but their respective strengths are balanced, the disagreement may be a conflict, rather than bullying. Conflicts are generally considered a normal aspect of human interaction, and they are not necessarily harmful. Bullying, however, is harassment, and not something one should ever be reasonably expected to handle in the workplace. If the conflict is not handled well, though, it can sometimes evolve into including harassment and bullying, thus becoming a problem in the working environment.
Where does bullying take place?
Bullying has become a more prevalent problem in Norwegian workplaces in the past 15 years. Bullying occurs in any enterprise where employees come into contact with other people, but some occupations and industries have had more problems than others when it comes to bullying from superiors or peers. Occupations with a higher risk of bullying include waiters, construction workers, kindergarten teachers, farmers and fishermen, chefs and kitchen assistants, as well as warehouse and transport workers.
- Unclear organization of work
- Unclear roles
- Unclear job descriptions and distributions of responsibility
- Absent and evasive management
- High conflict levels
- High workload
- Fear of losing employment or valued aspects of job (job insecurity)
Employers must prevent and handle bullying
Employers are ultimately responsible for ensuring a sound working environment. This entails organizing and adjusting activities to ensure that employees are not subjected to bullying in connection with work, just like they are responsible for preventing other types of harassment. If bullying still occurs, employers have a responsibility to handle it. This includes having procedures for internal reporting (Norwegian only) in place and making sure employees are aware of these. The occupational health service may assist the employer in this effort.
Prevention of bullying should be part of the enterprise’s systematic health, safety and environment work. In consultation with the employees or employee representatives, employers should map and risk assess workplace factors that could lead to bullying. This mapping and risk assessment process entails considering whether there are factors in the workplace that pose a risk of bullying occurring, and what the consequences may be. Based on these considerations, the employer must implement any measures deemed necessary to reduce the risk of bullying occurring. Different types of enterprises may need different types of measures.
Examples of measures to prevent bullying include:
- management putting bullying on the agenda and taking a clear stance on what is deemed acceptable behaviour in the workplace
- the enterprise having, and following, procedures for information and conflict resolution
- employees being provided with information and training in what to do if they get bullied
If an employer learns of alleged bullying, it normally involves a report of concern, and the employer has both a duty to act and a duty to protect those involved. This includes
- investigate the claims that have been made
- follow-up on all persons involved and implement any measures necessary to ensure a sound working environment, and to prevent the bullying from continuing
There are different methods of mapping an employer may use to investigate the alleged bullying. It is important to make sure to use a method suitable for the particular circumstances of the case, as well as for the particular enterprise or industry.
The employer must protect both the person who reported the matter and anyone else involved in the case. Among other things, this entails making sure the person who reported the concern does not suffer any retaliation – i.e. punishment or negative sanctions. Adaptations could also be necessary for the person who has been subjected to bullying, to mitigate the consequences of what has happened.
A bullying case, and any measures implemented to handle it, could affect the working environment within the enterprise. That is why the safety representative (Norwegian only) must be informed of all cases involving bullying. If the bullying has led to personal injury or illness, the employer must ensure this is registered (Norwegian only).
What to do if you experience bullying in the workplace?
If you are being bullied or you become aware of bullying in the workplace, it is important that you inform someone, to give your employer the chance to handle the matter. Information about what to do should be available in the enterprise’s procedures for internal reporting. Employees should always be able to report matters internally
- to the employer or a representative of the employer
- through the safety representative, the employee representative or a lawyer
If you have reported bullying in the workplace, but the matter is not being addressed, you should ask the person you reported your concerns to, or report your concerns again to somebody else. If you have already spoken to your immediate superior, for example, you could also report your concerns to the safety representative or employee representative. The reporting procedure for your enterprise should include information about this.
If you are being bullied by your superior, you can report your concerns to your superior’s superior. If the bully is the enterprise’s top executive, you can report your concerns to the board if it is a private enterprise, or to the organizational level above if it is a public-sector body. If a teacher in upper secondary school is being bullied by the principal, for example, the report of concern should be addressed to the county authority.
The Working Environment Act requires that the working environment be fully satisfactory, and that employees not be subjected to harassment or other improper conduct. This includes bullying, even if this term is not specifically mentioned.