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Handling bullying by peers in the workplace

Bullying doesn’t just happen on the playground. Even teachers experience bullying by other staff members and it’s not as uncommon as you may think.

We spoke to Grant Saptoe, a specialist on the subject of bullying in the workplace. Grant gives his expert opinion on how to deal with workplace bullying and what teachers and schools can do from a legal perspective.

What is workplace bullying?

Criticism meant to intimidate, humiliate, or single someone out without reason is considered bullying. 

Noteworthy, objective and constructive criticism is not always bullying. For example, if disciplinary action in accordance with the Codes of Good Practice is taken for misconduct directly related to workplace behaviour or job performance, it is not considered bullying.

Some examples of bullying in the workplace include:

  • Targeted practical jokes.
  • Being purposely misled about work duties, like incorrect deadlines or unclear directions.
  • Repeated comments about someone’s appearance, culture, lifestyle, or family.
  • Spreading malicious rumours or gossip about someone.
  • Physical assault, pushing, shoving, grabbing, and groping.
  • Unlawful threats to someone (intimidation), humiliation, and other verbal abuse.
  • Deliberately stopping someone’s work.
  • Taking credit for someone else’s contributions.
  • Isolating and excluding someone from meetings, emails, or work directives.
  • Continued denial of requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason.
  • Excessive performance monitoring.
  • Overly harsh or unjust criticism.

How does workplace bullying affect the teacher’s work and the school?

Workplace bullying has a tremendous impact on a person’s mental psyche and well-being. Teachers who are victims of bullying could suffer from impaired cognitive ability, resulting in diminished concentration and ability to teach effectively. They may experience low self-esteem and self-worth, doubt their competence, and lack confidence, which may lead them to question their career choice and abandon their faith in their employer. The long-term effects of bullying on the victim, if incorrectly addressed by the employer and left untreated by the victim, could lead to various physical symptoms such as digestive issues, high blood pressure, or a higher risk of diabetes, to name a few.

One of the most damning impacts that bullying has on the education system emanates from a decrease in productivity and morale of staff, increased employee absences, high turnover rates, poor team dynamics, and reduced trust, effort, and loyalty from teachers. Victims will often attempt to avoid the perpetrator or succumb to stress, which results in reduced educator resources, the disruption of lesson schedules, and increased costs to the school to provide relief resources. Ultimately, it is the learner that is prejudiced. 

What should teachers do if they are being bullied?

  1. Identify if it is bullying, harassment, or someone just being a ‘jerk’ (in other words, a person who acts aggressively and causes unwarranted conflict because they’re having a bad day but on the next day, their demeanour may be completely different).
  2. Advise the perpetrator that their behaviour is offensive and caution them to immediately desist the behaviour. If you’re afraid to do so alone, ask a colleague to accompany you. 
  3. Carefully document all incidents, verify if there is a policy and procedure in place that is to be adhered to, and formally report the incident to a person of higher authority and to their employee representative body accordingly. This is important because in many scenarios, the Human Resources personnel are not trained and/or competent in response handling.

In South Africa, you are protected under the provisions of the newly drafted Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the workplace. In many other countries, there is similar legislation that protects you so it’s important to research and know your rights. If you don’t receive good support from school management, invoke the internal disciplinary procedures such as the grievance procedure against the perpetrator, principal, and the chair of the school governing body (i.e. follow the chain of command). 

How can the school help? 

Schools can adopt long-term solutions and not once-off interventions to deal with bullying, by:

  1. Formulating an anti-bullying policy in its code of conduct.
  2. Employing trained resources to effectively deal with bullying in a proactive manner for both the target and the perpetrator.
  3. Creating a safe haven or open bullying-reporting system.
  4. Ensure that the code of conduct is accessible and is introduced to learners, their parents, teachers, staff and SGB members.
  5. Monitor blind spots where bullying is likely to occur and embark on bullying training and awareness campaigns to train learners, staff and educators to identify the signs of bullying.
  6. Encourage witnesses to speak up. Bystander training is of utmost importance as it could save a life.

About the author:
Grant Saptoe is an accredited HR Professional and Organisational Change Management Consultant with an excess of 20 years of multi-sector management experience. As the Managing Director of Paradigm Management Consulting, he specialises in the subject of bullying in the workplace.

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