Bullying can be poisonous to any organizational environment making volunteers feel unsafe. Each volunteer will react differently to being bullied; distress, anxiety, panic, a lack of self confidence in his or her abilities are some of the emotional outcomes associated with bullying. A bully can also make a volunteer feel isolated. On the far end of the emotional spectrum bullying can lead to a volunteer feeling physically ill as well as psychologically injured. Since bullying undermines the well being of a volunteer, it should be considered an occupational health and safety issue.
For many practitioners of volunteer engagement bullying and harassment are often seen as being the same thing. This is not the case. Harassment is a legal term whereby a volunteer has been harassed on prohibited grounds as defined by human rights legislation. Specific prohibited grounds would include gender discrimination as well as age, racial and disability discrimination.
Bullying is not cited as a legal term as it applies to the engagement of volunteers. There is no apparent universal legal definition of bullying; a bully’s behaviours can equally have the same impact on volunteers that personal harassment can. Specific examples of bullying include insulting and offensive behaviour that results in a person feeling threatened, humiliated, frightened and/or demoralized. With harassment one usually knows his or her rights have been violated because one of the prohibited grounds has been breached. Acts of bullying on the other hand are harder to detect as they are carried out in subtle ways and may in fact be seen as part of the organizational culture.
Since acts of bullying can lead a volunteer to a state of fearing for their physical and psychological well being, strategies are needed that will eliminate or at the very least minimize oppressive behaviour from occurring. The first strategy I would advocate is a sound risk management approach to the problem. A risk assessment is an important step in protecting your volunteers and your organization’s good will. It helps you focus on the risks that really matter in a volunteer engagement environment – the ones with the potential to cause harm. In many instances, straightforward measures can readily control risks. For example, the development of a standard of behaviour to be followed that ensures the health and safety of volunteers. For most, that means enacting uncomplicated, economical and effective measures to ensure the safety of your most valuable asset – your human resources.
A risk assessment is simply a careful examination of what, in your organization, could cause harm to people, so that you can weigh up whether you have taken enough precautions or should do more to prevent harm. Volunteers have a right to be protected from harm caused by acts of bullying. With that in mind there are some key questions that need to be answered in order to complete a risk assessment and create a plan of action to prevent bullying.
Ø What are the risks associated with bullying?
Ø Who is at risk?
Ø What are the options for protecting volunteers from bullying activities?
Ø What is the best practice that is likely to achieve a desired outcome of making an environment safe for volunteers?
Ø Finally, evaluate and modify the action plan as required.
There are other strategies that will help make an environment bully-free. First there is the need for a policy that clearly states that there will be zero tolerance for any act of bullying that is intentional. A clear definition of bullying is required in order to distinguish it from the more legally defined act of harassment. Furthermore, there needs to be clarification between intentional and unintentional acts of bullying. The consequences associated with intentional and unintentional acts of bullying, need to be spelled out in clear terms.
The second strategy that should be considered is a complaint process. Volunteers should know who they can turn to in order to grieve a perceived act of bullying. A complaint process ought to consider the procedural steps to be taken when investigating acts of bullying. Ideally a complaints form should be set in place in order to have critical facts identified as well as an opportunity to recommend corrective action to be taken against bullying activities.
A third strategy must be seen as a necessity. A commitment is needed, starting at the senior management level, to make volunteering in an organization a safe activity, free from any act of harassment and bullying. Such a commitment would mean developing an organizational culture based on respect and equality for all. There should be an identifiable code of conduct to follow. Equally important, is a need of clear consequences that will be applied for breaching the code of conduct.
Consideration should be given to developing a training program in order to achieve a bully-free environment. It is important to make all stakeholders aware of the signs and complexities associated with bullying. There is a need to share the organization’s policy and complaint procedure on bullying. The training ought to focus on specific measures that individuals can take to prevent bullying from occurring and in that way all stakeholders become mindful of their responsibilities in making the organizational environment a safe place. A team effort!!
To develop a sound strategic approach to addressing the issue of bullying, the involvement of all stakeholders is a must. By involving volunteers, staff and clients one is taking a holistic approach to resolving the issues surrounding bullying. The root cause of bullying is likely to emerge if all the stakeholders are involved. To leave out one of the partners when it comes to addressing all aspects of bullying may be costly to the organization’s volunteer program. Clearly, that cost would be making it a difficult challenge to recruit and retain volunteers.