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Handling Bullying and Conflict

Jackie was excited about landing her dream job teaching at a Christian school but reasonably quickly the situation began to deteriorate. No one explained to her how things worked, so she was constantly having to ask questions which were responded to curtly. She had a particular clash with one staff member and when she asked their common manager to intervene, he asked her instead to explain her actions. When Jackie pulled out her position description to demonstrate she actually had authority over the task, the manager admitted she was right but no one apologised and the tension continued.After several months and she was on the end of an angry outburst from a fellow teacher, she discovered that there was resentment by that teacher in particular, but also more generally on staff, about the manner of her appointment. The correct procedures had not been followed.Her manager had agreed that her workload was too much but when giving her the much requested administration support, he also gave her a new project. When she explained she was unable to complete the extra project because of a focus on other tasks and fundraising he told her to stop fundraising. Three months later she was told that lack of income meant her role was being cut back.There were a hundred other little cuts: her name left off lists of staff; no room allocated at a staff retreat; told she was not qualified to apply for a higher duties job she was already doing for a year, and that job then given to a less qualified and less experienced man; asked to address a group, and then not being invited to present; she would say something in a meeting and be ignored, then someone else would say the same thing and be affirmed; being told her contract would not be renewed, but that she was not allowed to inform anyone beyond immediate family. While each of these situations individually might not be considered particularly harmful, the combined force can be seen to be part of a systematic issue of bullying, particularly by Jackie’s manager. Bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed toward a worker, or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety. It includes behaviour such as:

  • Abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments.

  • Malicious sarcasm.

  • Unjustified criticism or complaints.

  • Spreading misinformation or malicious rumours.

  • Deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities.

  • Withholding information that is vital for effective work performance.

  • Setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines.

  • Denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to the detriment of the worker.

Unreasonable treatment in relation to accessing entitlements such as leave and training.Interfering with someone’s personal property or work equipment. ​Bullying can also be contrasted with a positive workplace culture, which will:

  • Ensure the dignity at work of all employees.

  • Ensure fair and just dealings.

  • Build happy and constructive working relationships. E

  • Ensure respect is shown and differences valued.

  • Encourage constructive discussion of differences of views and approaches.

  • Ensure open and constructive communications.

  • Prevent actions of bullying, exclusion, unfair treatment and other negative or demeaning behaviours.

  • Deal firmly and fairly with negative behaviours, including bullying and harassment.

(For more ideas about anti-bullying policies see ​Christians may face the further challenge of being victimised for their faith, a situation that has been reported several times in groups I have spoken to. How bullying can affect your work If you are being bullied at work you might:

  • Be less active or successful.

  • Be less confident in your work.

  • Feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed.

  • Have your life outside of work affected, e.g. study, relationships.Want to stay away from work.

  • Feel like you can’t trust your employer or the people who you work with.

  • Lack confidence and happiness about yourself and your work.

  • Have physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches, sleep problems.

(See In the wider workforce bullying is a significant problem with the Australian Workplace Barometer (Dollard et al, 2012, 59) reporting that, “There is a serious concern regarding levels of bullying and harassment. Results from the AWB show that levels of bullying are at 6.8%, which are substantially higher than international rates.” Those 6.8% experienced bullying in the previous six months, and more than half said that bullying had been continuing for longer than six months.Those statistics do not tell the whole picture, since generally bullying and mental health issues are under-reported. In the United States 45% of workers say they have experienced workplace abuse ( Dr Michelle Callahan in the Huffington Post gives an excellent list of tips for dealing with bullying:

  1. Don’t get emotional. Bullies take pleasure in emotionally manipulating people. Stay calm and rational to diffuse the situation.

  2. Don’t blame yourself. Acknowledge that this is not about you; it’s about the bully.

  3. Do your best work. The bully’s behaviour will seem more justified if you aren’t doing your best work, or if you do things like come to work late, take long lunches, turn in work late, etc.

  4. Build a support network. Instead of allowing the bully to make you retreat into your office, work on building your relationships with your co-workers so that you have support.

  5. Document everything. Keep a journal (on your personal computer or in writing, but never leave it in the office) of what happened when (and who witnessed it). Keep emails and notes.

  6. Seek help. If you think you’re being bullied, it’s time to start talking to others who can help you manage this situation. Try a mentor, advocate, seasoned/experienced friend, even a legal advocate who specialises in bullying and inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour in the workplace.

  7. Get counselling. It will help you deal with the stress, especially if the bullying is already affecting your physical and mental health. You have to take care of yourself.

  8. Stay healthy. Maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle outside of work to help you cope with the madness at work. Work out, get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy diet.

  9. Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about bullying, your company’s policies on inappropriate behaviour and occupational law regarding this kind of experience.

  10. Don’t expect to change the bully. Real behaviour change is difficult and it takes time. You have no control over a bully’s willingness to accept that they have a problem and to work on it. In the worst-case scenario you may need to leave your job.

For Christians, there are some tensions:

  • Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, but tough love may involve standing up to the bully.

  • There is a desire for revenge that is palpable, but must be offset by a desire for righteousness.

  • We are told to love our enemies, but how is that offset against our godly fight for justice?

The Bible reveals to us some of the causes of bullying behaviour:

  • In the case of Joseph, it was jealousy from his brothers, which was inflamed by his prideful behaviour (Genesis 37).

  • Goliath was convinced that his power could be used to bully anyone he wanted to, and which ironically made him vulnerable to young David with his slingshot (1 Samuel 17).

  • The Good Samaritan of Jesus’ parable was picked on by thieves and robbers, and ignored by the religious establishment, because he was vulnerable as a single man traveling a dangerous road (Luke 10:25–37).

  • Jesus was bullied perhaps more than anyone else in the Bible. We have graphic descriptions of his abuse and punishment including mocking, swearing, lashings, beatings and then the horrific humiliation of the cross. It appears that those who treated him so poorly were mostly afraid of him, his wisdom, his miracles, his authority, his disciples, his popularity and his claims to be the Christ (Matthew 27:11–56).

So how do we respond to bullying and conflict in the workplace from a Christian perspective? David Augsburger offers the following excellent guidelines:

  • Conflict allows us to grow more like Christ (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

  • Peacemaking starts with our personal attitude, which in turn comes from a focus on God, not on the conflict (1 Peter 3:13–15).

  • It is possible to reconcile unilaterally, but only if the past is forgiven completely (Philippians 4:2–9).

  • Resolving conflict may require different methods at different times and places (1 Samuel 25:26–35; Esther 7:1–6; Proverbs 6:1–5; Acts 16:22–24; 22:22–23, 29).

  • Differences of opinion are inevitable and usually acceptable (1 Corinthians 12).

  • Reconciliation does not necessarily require giving up or giving in; loving confrontation may be preferable (Galatians 6:1–5).

  • God reconciled all to himself, but we must pass this gift on to others to fully realise its benefits (Ephesians 4:29–32).

  • Resolving conflict God's way may require us to accept consequences and alter our behaviour (Ephesians 4:22–32).

  • Justice is God's, not ours (Luke 6:27–39).

Biblical peacemaking involves an active commitment to restore damaged relationships and have agreements that are just and satisfactory to everyone involved (1 John 3:18). A spirit of forgiveness, open communication and cooperative negotiation may clear away the hardness of hearts left by conflict, and make possible reconciliation and genuine personal peace. True biblical vulnerability, honesty and forgiveness can restore a person's usefulness, both to God and to others, and lead to complete restoration of relationships (Galatians 6:1–3; Ephesians 4:1–3, 24) (in Banks & Stevens, The Complete Book of Everyday Theology, 2011, 212–213).

Kara Martin is Project Leader with Seed, Mentor Educator with the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship of Australia (Victoria), MBA Curriculum Developer with Excelsia College, and former Associate Dean of the Marketplace Institute at Ridley College in Melbourne. She has worked in media and communications, human resources, business analysis and policy development roles, in a variety of organisations, and as a consultant. She was Director of the School of Christian Studies for three years and has lectured with the Brisbane School of Theology, Macquarie Christian Studies Institute and Wesley Institute. Kara has a particular passion for integrating our Christian faith and work, as well as helping churches connect with the workers in their congregations. She is married to David, and they have two amazing adult children: Jaslyn and Guy. She is currently under contract to write a two-volume exploration of Workship: how we can worship God through our work.

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