Finding Justice after a Workplace Bullying Incident

Being on the receiving end of workplace bullying can be an unexpected life-shattering event for any of us. Recovery from workplace bullying is a process that can take years, while some targets of bullying never return to work.

Finding justice can be difficult for a bullied target as some of us blame them for being weak or inept at their job. Therefore, justice from within an organisation is not always an option. At the same time, our legal solutions can take years to resolve, forcing the target to relive their traumatic experience time and again only delaying their recovery. Legal justice comes at a significant physical, mental and financial cost.

There are ways that we can help the target find some justice after an incident has occurred. This starts with our being aware of, and open to, facilitating that justice where we can. Our helping targets to find justice starts with empathy and compassion. Yet, it also requires us to develop a workplace system to manage bullying with appropriate actions and consequences.

Why would a target seek justice when being bullied?

For us to understand why a target may seek justice, we need to first understand his or her experience a little. Why would he or she actually need justice? The following is part of an experience of workplace bullying from the direct experience of one person, who we will name Steve.

“If you haven’t been the target of workplace bullying try to imagine what it is like to be on the receiving end. Let’s jump straight to the point where you have nothing left. Your very concept of who you are has been shattered because one of your core belief systems, that of a fair world where everything is, and should be, managed through a fair process has been obliterated. Another core belief, that you should always trust a person until the time that he or she has given you reason not to, has also been crushed. Over a period of twelve months, not only has your belief systems been whittled away, but your self-confidence has eroded out of existence. You were relocated to another office, losing your team and your direction. You feel publicly humiliated as you have been relocated, which everyone can see. You also haven’t been able to manage this relationship alone as a reasonably educated adult should. All you can think about is how you have utterly failed.

On top of that, the continuous stress and anxiety has ended your capacity to clearly process information and function. This has been compounded by months of sleepless nights, yet you continue to turn up for work as a shell as you still have bills to pay. You worry about being a burden to family and friends, so you keep what is really happening inside locked away. At work colleagues have advised you that the general manager is interrogating them every time they talk to you. They too are feeling intimidated, so are careful to avoid you when necessary. So you are alone with only the darkest of thoughts; that being your own death because it will end the agony that your life has become. You feel there is nothing left of you. You didn’t ask for any of it; but that is how it was.”

What is justice to the target?

The concept of justice can mean different things to different people. For some it is legal solutions; for others it is serious consequences implemented by the workplace. Yet these aren’t always possible or realistic. At the time, Steve’s belief of justice was:

  • an acknowledgement of the stress and anxiety caused;
  • ownership of the behaviour by the users of bullying tactics; and
  • that the behaviour stop so he could do his job well and in safety.

Only the third part happened…eventually.

When that didn’t happen, Steve started thinking about the organisational response. As was required, the organisation acted to keep him safe which is a reasonable response. Yet, there was no consideration of his mental or emotional health. This could have been partially addressed with a simple acknowledgement of how difficult this must have been. But that didn’t happen either.

A bullied target’s perception of injustice feeds their feelings of despair and hopelessness. This, in turn, delays recovery.

What is justice?

The concept of justice requires the identification of three elements:

  • who has been harmed;
  • the nature of the harm suffered; and
  • how best to repair the harm.

Within situations of workplace bullying, the concept of justice requires that a further step is taken via the process of restorative justice. Restorative justice emphasises repairing the harm caused, in this case, by bullying behaviour. Put simply it is target healing. Restorative justice is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. Therefore, it is vital for us to ask a bullied target what that might mean for them. This must be reasonably considered to be able to help the target find a level of justice and to support them in their recovery.

Restorative Justice in Workplace Bullying Systems

As most of us are aware, for a workplace to operate effectively, it is vital that documented systems exist so that all employees are aware of expectations and can act accordingly. The inclusion of restorative justice processes as a response to workplace bullying is no different.

There are key elements that need to be included within this system. This includes that:

  • The target is included in the process of justice. He or she is asked what they are seeking and that must be reasonably considered. At the very least, a target must be kept informed as to their request and, if not able to be provided, why this is the case.
  • The bully admits responsibility for harmful behaviour and reflects on the adverse impact they had on target. Unfortunately, not all bullies will admit that they have harmed another. Where a bully refuses to admit that, he or she is not allowed to reharm their targets in any mediated or facilitated discussion with the target present.
  • The target and bully are separated if they work in the same team or unit and their paths will inevitably cross. When the target returns to work, we can’t expect that the returning person will feel, or be, psychologically safe immediately upon their return if he or she is forced to work with the bully. There is also a possibility that the bullying behaviours will continue if there is no separation. It is important to be aware that transfers can have a significant impact on the target. Any plan developed must ensure that target transfers don’t seem like punishment. It is vital that the person managing the situation is friendly, empathetic and supportive, with good communication and dispute resolution skills.

Helping a target of workplace bullying find justice is a key part of recovery. Finding justice helps a target of bullying recover sooner and return to work. However, justice must be on our radar in the first place to ensure it is included in our systems.

Sources:

Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, http://restorativejustice.org/
Naime, Gary & Naime, Ruth F, The Bully Free Workplace – Stop Jerks, Weasels and Snakes from Killing Your Organisation, 2011

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