By Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. 20 January, 2017 – Childline KZN South Africa reports an increase of bullying at schools, with their operations manager Adeshini Naicker calling for stricter penalties against bullies.
Are penalties really the best way to change a societal behaviour? How do we change a bully’s behaviour? How do we do it in a sustainable way so that he or she doesn’t continue harassing others once an adult, for instance in the workplace? What alternatives are there to how we do things currently? I think it’s time we mobilise our civil society.
Bullying at school and at the workplace is a serious matter. You might have been bullied yourself when you were younger, or perhaps you are bullied presently – by a colleague, a boss or a client. While there are laudable national efforts to curb bullying at schools, there is not much discussion in the public space about workplace harassment. In South Africa, we have an entire legislative framework that deals with harassment as a form of discrimination – and especially in the Employment Equity Act (EEA). There are Codes of Good Practice applied by the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) that deal exclusively with sexual harassment and discrimination against people with disabilities. Chapter II of the EEA lists grounds for unfair discrimination, such as race, gender, age, religion, belief, language among others – and much bullying behaviour directly attacks a victim on one or more of these (also unlisted) grounds.
Bullying: the silent killer
Unfortunately, most forms of harassment are difficult to report. Bullying at the workplace often happens underhandedly, and is dismissed as a personality clash by line managers or bosses. Added to that, there is the fear of exposure and further harassment, possibly even job loss, if you report a bullying colleague. But most importantly, many workplaces either don’t have a clear internal grievance policy or procedure, and if they do, there are often no neutral persons handling the complaints, but other company employees. Chairmen/chairwomen of disciplinary hearings that may be held against the accused bully are often board members, CEOs, MDs or so-called independent labour lawyers, who however are commissioned by the company to preside the hearing.
South African schools are equally requested to have anti-bullying policies and clear grievance procedures. Most schools have teachers who act as a liaison counselor or mediator, or have co-mediation programmes between teachers and learners.
But just like at the workplace, the issue remains that any grievance handling, any mediation, is usually done internally. The involved parties (from bully to victim to mediator) know each other, which can be a deterrent as affected parties may fear repercussions which means they inhibit themselves from truly speaking up. Think about it – if you feel bullied by your husband or wife, or your mother or father, who do you report it to? Your neighbour, your friend, another family member? Maybe you do have a person of trust you can go to, but the proximity of the parties may make it very difficult to be understood and listened to without bias.
Solution: amateur peacemakers drawn from civil society
This leads me to the conclusion that an effective way to stem bullying behaviour is for us, the society, to own the solution. To carry it together, and to assume responsibility as a national community. Let us introduce a national pool of peacemakers: Amateur mediators who fit certain criteria (active listening skills, empathy, communication skills, old souls.. ).
An amateur peacemaker – as a stranger to the dispute – could either help resolve the dispute by meeting the parties in person, or by receiving anonymous audio files of bully and victim both recording their story. The fact is that a bully also needs help – not just the victim. Audio file transfers would strip away most prejudice that a peacemaker may hold against a party, consciously or subconsciously, as he or she will not be able to judge someone by skin colour, looks, body language or even pheromones.
For example: schools of one city could each put forward 5-10 learners who fit the peacemaker criteria. They are then added to a database, and if bullying incidents are reported at any of the schools that school calls for a peacemaking representative of a different school to come and listen in to the dispute, and try mend the relationship.
Similarly, industry vertical associations, business associations and bargaining councils could create a pool of peacemakers that are familiar with the work or industry environment of the parties involved in the bullying dispute, but not with the actual parties or their workplace. The idea is not to draw from professional mediators, but from the “ordinary” workforce, preferably not even management. This could also help instill leadership skills in employees.
Result: shared ownership of a societal problem and associated solutions
Sure, there are accredited private mediators, psychologists and legal professionals who successfully help resolve incidents of individual bullying. But having a pool of amateur peacemakers will result in us tackling the issue of bullying as civil society, and as a joint national effort since we would together own the solution. Additionally, it would be affordable or even free to everyone, be it learner or employee. And best of all, there would be minimal bias, as neither party to a dispute will commission a specific mediator of their choice.
And the results? More peacemakers and mediators in times of great national tension beyond bullying. Bullies who understand there are other ways to tackle their hunger for power or their feeling of inadequacy, than to bully someone else. Victims who feel empowered and whose self-worth is re-instated. Better work morale, collaboration, a decrease of workplace conflict, resulting in higher production and better health.
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