The Rise and Rise of Bullying in Corporate South Africa

Financial Services’ HR experts are sounding alarm bells over a rise in corporate bullying in post-pandemic South Africa. Cases are being investigated almost every week where employees are lodging complaints about bullying in the workplace.

Most bullies don’t realise they’re the problem

HR expert, CEO and co-founder of Brainwave Communications, Ms Sungeetha Sewpersad, speaking during a recent webinar on corporate bullying, said unfortunately many of the bullies are not conscious of the behaviour they display in the workplace. And this is being borne out in statistics by wellness providers to corporate South Africa that show a steep increase in the deterioration of mental health as a result of workplace experiences. Sewpersad joined Mr Muzi Khoza, a partner at law firm ENSafrica, during the panel discussion facilitated by Dr Kershen Pillay of the Graduate Institute of Financial Sciences (GIFS). The insights’ session is part of a series of thought leadership initiatives by insurance services’ umbrella body the Insurance Institute of Gauteng (IIG).

Labour law now makes provision for action against workplace bullies

The panelists say the rise of corporate bullying has seen the Department acting in a bid to protect the interests of workers. The Code of Good Practice on the Elimination and Prevention of Harassment in the Workplace found expression as part of the Employment Equity Act last year.

Sewpersad says government’s action is a direct response to the problem of corporate bullying. Khoza explained that harassment is unfair discrimination and offends the principle of equality. He told the audience that employers have a legal duty to eliminate all forms of unfair discrimination. Among the reasonable steps that employers need to take to not be found wanting include having a harassment policy in place that clearly outlines the steps to follow to offer appropriate assistance to the complainant. Khoza pointed out that due to the seriousness of harassment as a form of misconduct, as the dignity of the person being bullied is impugned, should the bully be found guilty termination is usually the recommendation unless there are exceptional mitigating circumstances.

Sharing your colleagues’ social media posts with the office can be problematic

Sewpersad used a case that she adjudicated as an example to outline how workplace bullying is perpetuated. She explained how an employee had followed a co-worker’s social media accounts and would then come to work and share what the co-worker had been up to in her private capacity. This behaviour escalated to the point where other co-workers became immersed in hearing about what was posted on social media to the point where the poster was then called derogatory names based on perceptions about her behaviour and attire. She complained about the bullying and after an investigation, the bully was found guilty and served with a final written warning.

Sewpersad also shared with the audience that due to the rising popularity of social media and of colleagues becoming friends who then spend time together outside work, it’s important to understand what’s acceptable conduct in both settings, as well as to know about rights and responsibilities over workplace conduct. She said that often workplace bullies are unaware that what they’re doing amounts to corporate bullying.

Companies may not be aware they’re liable if they fail to take action

Khoza added that companies face increased risk exposure if their harassment policies aren’t clear or communicated. He advised that companies are accountable through vicarious liability should employees lodge complaints about bullying with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, better known as the CCMA. He explained that when an employee complains about bullying, they are invariably complaining about an individual who’s the alleged bully. When matters serve at the CCMA, the employer of both the complainant and the alleged bully is held responsible through vicarious liability should the complaint be upheld. This, he said, can be a costly exercise for the company both from a reputational and punitive damages’ perspective. Being labeled a toxic work environment is a compelling reason for talent to steer clear from companies, no matter how lucrative the position.

Practical tips from the experts on what to do if you’re being bullied in the workplace

Sewpersad advises people experiencing corporate bullying to try and approach the bully first to raise how they feel as most often, she said, bullies are oblivious to the impact of their actions. She did concede that this conciliatory approach doesn’t always work especially when the bully is in a position of power, or seen as a friend of the HR manager. She advised then that employees follow appropriate reporting channels within the workplace which include independent whistleblowing hotlines. In her experience, while this mechanism was set up to encourage reporting on fraud and unethical conduct, it is now frequently being used to blow the whistle on corporate bullying. Sewpersad said this solution allows the person being bullied to outline their case to an independent third party that guarantees the complainant’s anonymity.

Khoza’s advice is that while many employees have access to legal remedies outside the workplace, the best route to follow is to exhaust internal processes first. He said it’s always important to lodge bullying complaints to internal channels and remind the employer that they are obligated to investigate or alternative mechanisms, including the CCMA, will be considered. Khoza explained this reminder is usually sufficient to trigger a positive response from the employer to take the matter seriously.

We should know better considering we’re South African

Both experts outlined the importance of introspection when it comes to workplace conduct and if you’re unsure if you’re being bullied or could be the bully yourself to seek counsel from HR.

In Sewpersad’s paraphrased words, “In a world where you can be anything, choose to be kind.”

In closing the webinar, Pillay outlined the esteem in which South Africa’s labour laws and workplace processes are held when compared to other countries. He opined, “Considering our recent history, shouldn’t we know better?” Sage reflection indeed.

Watch the webinar here.

This IIG Insights Session took place on 2 November 2023. Attendees are reminded that CPD certificates will be available within a week of the webinar. Log into the IIG CPD vault to access your certificate.

07 November 2023