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Unresolved Workplace Conflict in Top 5 as Cause of Bullying Behaviours.

Bullying behaviours can be prevalent in our workplaces and is a serious issue that costs corporations significantly in lost time and money due to absenteeism, staff turnover, and medical and legal costs.  Studies indicate workplace bullying is often a result of conflict escalation and instituting a third party Ombuds office as an informal conflict resolution channel is an ideal way to address this issue.

Jorge is working the night shift.  Over six months ago he had a conflict with one of his co-workers, Phan who insisted that Jorge was taking over his duties.  Jorge thought the discussion they had cleared the air and clarified their roles.  Phan did not think so and involved the manager who decided that Phan was mistaken and that he and Jorge were to continue with their present duties.  If Phan had concerns, the manager indicated he should speak to Jorge directly. 

Because of confidentiality concerns, the manager did not bring this issue forward to Jorge and relied on Phan to manage it, without any follow-up.  Phan thought the first discussion was ignored by Jorge and did not want to try again.  Phan’s frustration grew and  Jorge began experiencing on-going bullying behaviours by his co-worker and others in the department. They would play demeaning pranks on him throughout the night, call him names and shun him during breaks. Jorge’s manager works during the day and was unaware of the behaviours.  Jorge was reluctant to report the escalating behaviour and decided to ignore it in the hopes that it would eventually stop. This was not the case and he began to dread coming to work, experienced anxiety attacks and his work performance deteriorated. Jorge eventually wants to leave the organization because he can’t take it anymore, believes he is being weak but saves face by indicating to the organization that he has found another job, even though he has not.

Studies show that presented with a list of possible triggers of bullying, unresolved conflicts belonged to the top five most indicated causes of bullying (Zapf, 1999). Likewise, departments with numerous bullying incidents showed an unhealthy work environment with more unresolved conflicts as compared to departments with few bullying incidents (Agervold, 2009). Similarly, investigating the relative strength of a broad range of organizational causes of bullying (i.e. job stressors, leadership behaviour and organizational climate), interpersonal conflicts proved to be one of the strongest predictors of being a target of bullying (Hauge et al., 2007). These results align with Ayoko and colleagues (2003) who, by means of a multi-method approach, found that conflict incidents successfully predicted workplace bullying; and with Baillien and De Witte (2009) who observed that bullying among Belgian employees was predicted by a high number of unproductive conflicts in the team.

New findings from Baillien, Bollen and De Witte (2011) indicate that organizations can prevent workplace bullying through their response to unproductive conflicts. Specifically, organizations can encourage problem solving behaviours and discourage management decision making to solve conflicts. This may, for example, be accomplished by specific training sessions for managers and their employees on how to deal with conflicts and by stressing the importance of addressing conflicts in a collaborative instead of a competitive way.

Emphasizing the importance of problem solving and consensus building is important as other studies revealed that managers who intervene in conflicts using forcing techniques (Conlon, Carnevale, & Murnighan, 1994); potentially give rise to bullying. Baillien and De Witte (2011) indicate that a good option is to develop a protocol which specifies who to contact in the case of conflict in order to get the conflict solved in a satisfactory way. They suggest potential interveners may be peer mediators, coaches, consultants, facilitators or even managers specifically trained in conflict resolution techniques.

Before leaving Jorge summoned up the courage to contact the Workplace Fairness office and relay the real reason for his departure.  He just wanted to make sure that no one else would have to go through what he went through.  Unbeknownst to Jorge his story is similar to another the Workplace Fairness staff has heard and been acting on regarding the culture of the night shift.  The staff were able to use this information to further investigate this systemic issue and make recommendations to the organization on what can be done to address these behaviours. 

These recommendations included conflict resolution training focused on problem solving for the managers, night shift employees and eventually extending to all others within the organization.  Respectful workplace training was reviewed with all employees and further facilitated discussions focusing on respectful work environment was undertaken with the night shift.

Other conflict management systems have been put in place to give employees options when dealing with conflict.  With assistance from the Workplace Fairness office, the organization is now shifting from a culture of avoidance and being adversarial to one of collaboration.

The Workplace Fairness Ombuds Office asked Jorge and Phan if they would be interested in taking part in a facilitated discussion before his departure.  They agreed and the Workplace Fairness Office prepared them to partake in a constructive conversation and ensure there was a safe space in which to do this. The outcome was a rebuilding of trust and Jorge remaining on the night shift.  They worked with the Ombuds staff and their manager to create a new work plan providing clarity to their job roles and responsibilities.

Read more about how a Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office can support to reduce bullying behaviours in the workplace.

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