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A new definition of Bullying

by Jacinta M Kitt on June 26th, 2014

Bullying is now widely acknowledged as a problem of significance in workplaces. A number of myths and misconceptions in relation to the manifestations and effects of workplace bullying still exist. However there is an increased recognition of the destructive elements of bullying and a wider acknowledgement of the devastation of its effects. Despite the increased level of awareness, discussion, and debate in relation to all aspects of workplace bullying, there is still a lack of understanding of what bullying exactly entails and also a reluctance to fully accept that it is a serious and destructive form of abuse.

Euphemism, ambiguity and lack of clarity characterise many definitions of workplace bullying. In an attempt to encapsulate the phenomenon, broad terminology, such as ‘inappropriate’ ‘negative actions’ ‘mistreatment’ and ‘abuse of power’ is utilised, perhaps causing confusion between bullying and other inappropriate behaviours. This use of broad terminology may indeed serve to subvert the understanding of what bullying actually is.

Many definitions do not accurately capture bullying, as Bullying has a very distinct and unique element involving the setting up to fail of another person. Bullying obstructs the targets in trying to do their jobs. It attempts to discredit their performance, competence and reputation.  It aims to destroy their credibility and relationships with others in the workplace.

The Irish Government Task Force on Workplace Bullying defined workplace bullying as:

Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.

An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, is not considered to be bullying.

We believe there are weaknesses in the present definition one being the suggestion that all inappropriate behaviour that undermines the individual’s right to dignity at work is bullying.

This definition could also lead to:

1. Increased levels of “bullying fatigue” and complacency because of the use of the term bullying to describe other behaviours and a consequent failure to understand, recognise and deal with the genuine abuse that is bullying.

2. The facilitation of inappropriate behaviour arising from personality clashes, conflict, issues of mismanagement remaining unchallenged after having been raised and not upheld as complaints of bullying.

Our proposed new definition:

A pattern of unwanted behaviour which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity by creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

The term ‘dignity’ is the appropriate one to use in the definition. Dignity is most often defined as the worth and value that every person has by virtue of being a human being. How a person is treated determines whether their dignity is acknowledged or denied.  Everyone has the right to live and work with dignity.

The main aim of bullying is to create a feeling of worthlessness in the target through eroding their sense of capability, social connectivity and personal autonomy. Bullying tactics consistently attack these three core needs in a variety of subtle and insidious ways.

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