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Workplace bullying moves to forefront

By Chris Morris
Canadian Press

Researchers studying workplace violence say there is a huge, pent-up demand for new ways to deal with the hardships caused by bully bosses and pushy co-workers.

Marilyn Noble, part of a team from New Bruns-wick's Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research, said Monday workplace bullying is starting to move into the forefront as a real problem that needs real solutions.

"I truly believe that it's at the stage family violence was about 20 years ago," said Noble, co-chair of centre's research team on workplace violence and abuse.

"It has been around for a long time but suddenly we've put a name on it and we've made it discussable. There is a huge pent-up need to deal with it."

Workplace bullies -- people who target workers for intimidation, belittlement and humiliation -- are themselves becoming the targets of individuals and groups promoting respectful and safe workplaces in Canada.

Noble's team has just finished its first round of focus sessions where people in three New Brunswick cities were asked to appear for confidential discussions on the bullying issue.

Noble said the best turn out by far was in Fredericton, the capital city and the seat of the provincial government.

She said several attempts at organizing a focus group in the small city of Miramichi failed, despite assurances of the strictest confidentiality.

"We were told that if you work in a blue collar environment in a town with a limited number of employers, you may just take it (bully bosses) as part of the way things happen and you don't even challenge it," she said.

"It's also considered dangerous to challenge it."

Faced with mostly white-collar workers in the discussion groups, Noble said she was surprised by the large number of men who came forward.

She said they expressed frustration at the effects of downsizing and downloading.

"We heard from some of the men that if they tried to be good, motivational and caring managers they were dumped on by their organizations because they wanted them to manage in the old style of coercion and control," Noble said.

"In other words, they're not putting the screws to their people. I thought that was heartbreaking."

Heather Gray, president of the Edmonton-based consulting firm Threat Assessment and Management Associates Inc., said bullies share certain traits: They are usually in supervisory roles where they concentrate on gaining power and dominating others.

Gray said workplace bullying is a major safety issue.

"Once in a while, we see people driven to such extremes (that) they may lash out at the company, not only in the form of a lawsuit, but violently," she said in an earlier interview.

Noble said that because her research has received national attention, the group also heard from people across the country with stories of bully bosses or harassing co-workers.

"You can get bullied by your peers, but it's usually the boss," she said.

"In some cases, we heard about situations that had gone on for 20 or 30 years. People just sucked it up."

She said the people who came to the focus groups in New Brunswick complained there is no reliable outlet for their grievances.

They often felt ombudsman offices and human rights tribunals were not responsive.

Noble said that sometimes bullying behaviour is unwitting, but more often it is deliberate.

Bordering on psychopathic

"The worst situation is the person who is bordering on psychopathic, who just takes great glee in doing this. It may be someone who has bullied all their life. It has always worked for them and why would they do anything differently."

Noble said that in an office run by that kind of tyrannical bully, the whole atmosphere "lightens up" when he or she is absent from the office.

Noble said tougher legislation governing workplace harassment would help.

She said Quebec recently implemented a provision under its labour code that acknowledges psychological harassment in the workplace and provides for the training of investigators.

"Managers can be fined if they take no action to prevent these situations," Noble said. "They're trying to give their legislation teeth."

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