In offices around Brisbane, grown-up bullies are ruining lives while others are crying wolf, writes Helen Goltz.

There’s been a lot said in the media recently about bullying in the playground and online, but grown-up bullies in the office are subtle manipulators who can ruin careers, confidence and self-esteem.

It’s been estimated that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion every year. Victims of workplace bullying also take an average of seven additional sick days each year.

Brisbane woman ‘Jane’ (our interviewees’ real names have been withheld by request) felt the situation in her office was so bad that she was forced to leave her job.

“I was working on an infrastructure project and one of the managers would yell at me and other team members regularly,” she says. “On one occasion, I suggested he call me back later when he was able to talk calmly. He would ‘manage up’ competently, so no one above believed he could be doing it. I spoke to the Human Resources department who said it would not bode well for my career to make a complaint. When I accused this manager of bullying behaviour he sent me an email demanding an instant apology and retraction or he would start immediate legal proceedings. I was terrified, apologised and resigned. The company did not react or care.”

Unfortunately, victims like Jane aren’t the only ones who are suffering. The term ‘bully’ is also providing opportunities for workers who wish to cry wolf.

“I was a manager with an under-performing staff member in an Arts organisation,” says Adam. “She had been in the role for three months, wasn’t coping and was often in tears. With the HR Manager, I called her in, discussed her workload and looked at what was working and what was not working. Two days later she put in a complaint with the CEO that I was bullying her. Thank goodness I had the HR Manager in that meeting at the time. I don’t know how else I could have handled this situation and while she might not have liked it, at no time was she ever bullied. It really rattled me though and made me nervous managing staff from then on.”

Jennifer wasn’t lucky enough to have the HR Manager on her side.

“I started working for a public sector tourism organisation,” she says. “My manager asked me to chase up a report from a senior public servant. Unbeknown to me the report was late and the senior public servant took great exception to me ‘bullying’ him for it, a word he used. I reviewed my manner and I was polite. After that, every time I passed him in the corridor he would say ‘you keep out of my way, how dare you’. I was distraught for weeks. Sadly I had to resign. Nobody provided any support to me at the time.”

Kathryn Smith, clinical psychologist from Psychology Consultants, provides some advice for victims or those being falsely accused.

How to handle bullying if you are a victim in the workplace

• Report the incident to your manager.
• Speak to the person about how you are feeling and request that they stop.
• Seek formal mediation if necessary and have a support person attend.
• Keep a journal of the bullying incidents and witnesses.

How to handle being falsely accused of being a bully

• Approach the person who thinks they are being bullied and try to calmly clear the air and explain the situation. Make sure the timing and location of the conversation is appropriate.
• Report the situation to a neutral senior figure, explaining your behaviour and the turn of events that lead to the accusation.
• Self reflect. Would another person find my behaviour intimidating, offensive, humiliating or threatening? If so, work towards correcting it and seek professional help if required.
• Keep a personal record of events and names of witnesses.

Ultimately, workplace bullying is just like any other sort of bullying — the bully is often just as fragile as their victim.

“For both the alleged bully and victim,” Kathryn says, “it is important for them to care for themselves physically, emotionally, mentally and socially during this trying time.”