Code of Good Practice needed to deal with workplace bullying in SA

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    Code of Good Practice needed to deal with workplace bullying in SA

    A high profile case about workplace bullying recently made headlines in the UK.  The BBC reported that Paul Scott, a safety expert lodged a complaint of bullying by his employer when he did not budge on serious safety issues that he raised relating to the building of a new stadium in Belfast.  Ireland has two Codes of Good Practice that effectively deals with bullying from a health, safety and disciplinary point of view.  Australia has also published a Draft Code of Good Practice that serves as a guideline to their Work Health and Safety Act. The tightening up on the law around bullying in Australia followed the highly publicised suicide of a young lady who was bullied in the workplace.

    Existing Framework in SA is too weak to deal with workplace bullying

    In South Africa, there is still no legal certainty on the definition of bullying. The existing legal framework does not make specific provision and it is too weak to deal with bullying. We need to look at enacting specific legal provisions that provide workplace and civil remedies for the victims. Research conducted on the prevalence of bullying in South Africa revealed that 31 % of workers have experienced bullying in the workplace. Bullying places the safety, health and welfare of workers at risk. Negative effects of bullying include ill health, stress, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. The workplace can also become dysfunctional and productivity can be reduced.

    What is workplace bullying?

    Employers have a duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace and workplace bullying is a psychosocial hazard. It must be managed like any other hazard in the workplace. The Australian Draft Code of Good Practise: Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying is defined as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety. Repeated behaviour refers to the persistent nature of the behaviour and can involve a range of behaviours over time. Unreasonable behaviour means behaviour that a reasonable person, having considered the circumstances, would see as unreasonable, including behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening. Research shows that typically a bully has a personality disorder that is not immediately obvious and is usually threatened in some way by the victim. The victim may challenge the status quo and some researchers have suggested is most likely to be a well- educated veteran and highly competent. The bully would often enlist co- workers in an effort to socially isolate and create a toxic working environment for the victim. In their book the ‘The Bully within’, the authors hold a different view and suggest that no purpose is served by profiling and demonising the character of the bully and we should avoid language that is shame- or blame based. They go on to suggest that we must all embrace the possibility that we potentially ‘house’ the bully within ourselves and within our organisations. They urge that mediation be used as a tool to look at the behaviours and interpersonal interactions of both parties with a view to achieving behaviour change in the workplace over the long term.

    Identifying workplace bullying

    The Code lists specific incidences of workplace bullying, whether intentional or unintentional, that may be considered to be workplace bullying if they are repeated, unreasonable and create a risk to health and safety include:

    • Abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments

    • Unjustified criticism or complaints

    • Continuously and deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities

    • Withholding information that is vital for effective work performance

    • Setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines

    • Setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level

    • Denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources such that it has a detriment to the worker

    • Spreading misinformation or malicious rumours

    • Changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to deliberately inconvenience a particular worker or workers

    Good Practice for workplaces

    In South Africa the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHASA) provides that employers are responsible for the health and safety of their workplaces.  Every employer shall provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of his employees. The definition of ‘health’ in the act is very broad and means free from illness and injury attributable to occupational causes.  Most of the literature in this field and the case law focuses on ill health caused by injury and other physical hazard in the workplace.  Little attention is focused on psychosocial hazards like employee wellness and workplace bullying.  

    Very few employees formally complain about bullying per se, relative to the prevalence of the problem. Those that do complain usually do so through the CCMA and the Labour Court and the complaint is usually not specifically grounded in bullying but manifests itself in other forms of complaints usually about constructive dismissal and sexual and other forms of harassment. When the complaint is aired, then the true pattern of bullying is unmasked.  The definition of ‘harassment’ set out in the new Protection from Harassment Act is very broad and does not specifically cover workplace bullying.

    Ideally South Africa should implement a Code of Good Practice which sets out a clear definition of bullying. The Code would have to be linked to OHASA and provide for good practice in the management of bullying as a hazard in the workplace. Secondly it must set out good practice standards for workplaces to create a bully free environment and to deal with complaints about bullying in an informal and formal manner.

    Training and Skills Development

    Employers should have an anti – bullying policy in place which clearly defines what bullying is; provides examples of bullying activities; identifies a clear process to be followed for dealing with bullying; and sets out the necessary sanctions that can be imposed for bullying. Staff must be made aware of bullying and must be trained on how to deal with it in the workplace. The employer must regularly monitor bullying as a workplace hazard in terms of health and safety practices.   Managers must be capacitated with skills to set up proper job descriptions for staff; in performance management; and in coaching and mentoring for successful performance.  

    About the Author: Sharon Snell BProc LLM is Chief Operations Officer of INSETA

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    Hi Sharon I personally do not think legislation will assist in this. If you look at the Protected Disclosure Act and the amount of protection it offers one. If you have the finances to take the matter to court then yes but how many people can afford it. I personally have been involved in a whistle blowing incident that involved the likes of a “reputed” institute that works with Chartered Accountants.(Using this as when I requested an explanation as to why, I was threatened with lawyers letters) I was exposed, left to fend for myself and when it came to me being “worked out” of the place I was employed they turned their back on me and left me hanging. That is why we have the corruption we currently see. So my opinion as an HR Practitioner, legislation will not assist the people it is supposed to assist.


    siExcellent point Tony and where the bullying is related to a bigger corrupt circus, they will do everything possible to cover up and isolate the victim. That of course is deliberate and purposeful bullying with another end in mind and the perpetrator does not have sociopathic tendencies.

    I am looking particularly at workplaces which don’t have issues of corruption but have a toxic section because a bully is operating in that division. I read about an instance of bullying committed by a colleague on the same level. The lady in question was struggling financially and was a few months into the job. The bully was are of this and pulled out all the stops. He went around advertising her birthday ‘function’ and invited everyone, despite her telling him that she could not afford to have a function. He then ridiculed her for months making hurtful comments about her financial status until she left. Every time there was an office function he would make a dig at her and tell her loudly that she must not eat until she reciprocated with her party. She was constantly made the butt of his sharp humour. She became depressed and stressed and too ill to attend work and her performance suffered.

    The above company would have benefited by having a bullying policy and conducting training thereon. If everyone knows how bullying manifests itself and how seriously it affects the victim, this bully would not have been able to make the ladies life so miserable. This is the reason I am putting forward that there be a Code of Good Practice. Minimum standards might not help all cases of bullying ( especially where it is linked to deliberate criminal conduct). It certainly would make a difference to the workplaces that genuinely need guidance to eradicate bullying.


    What I have found very difficult but useful for me has been to ask myself what bully resides in me that is represented by the person who is bullying me. Of course I am rushing into the fix mode as if asked for how to solve this. The adage the person is mirror reflecting something about me is useful for me. The most revolting feeling that is evoked by these questions I release by energy psychology. I have been in such a situation and did not go the law/justice route but find help for me. Because I have a background in coaching it is abit easier for me to handle it difficult as it was. I just think that finding a solution by putting laws creates a situation where my ignorance of the policies and and stamina to stand my ground to fight just is too much. There is a perpetrator in me attracting the bully character in another or a victim entity in me inviting the bully to expose this victim so the dynamic will always show up until either of these energies are accepted, seen and loved.   


    Thanks for such an interesting perspective Lawrence. You come across as a strong person, so it is true that strong people also get bullied and sometimes it is just because they come across as strong, knowledgeable and are able to stand their ground. Being introspective helps because it does take 2 to tango.

    I like the use of the word ‘mobbing’ as it is increasingly used against exceptional performers with high ethical and work standards. Groups of co – workers target the person who ruins the bell curve and try to shove the person out in effort to maintain the mediocrity standard. Tony’s point above about corruption can also apply.

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