Strong leadership and cultural integrity – the keys to overcoming workplace bullying 


By Jessica Hickman – The Bullyologist

Numerous studies have confirmed that the relationship between an employee and their immediate supervisor is the biggest predictor of staff turnover in a workplace. When there’s an abusive manager around, good people leave – even when attractive pay, job satisfaction and chances for promotion are present.

A workplace bully is the ultimate killer of staff retention. People don’t leave a job – they leave a manager. The opposite also applies – supportive managers who foster mutual respect attract better talent and save a business time, money and the need to constantly replace fed-up employees.

Want to identify hidden pockets of bullying in your organisation? Take a good, hard look at your staff retention figures, especiallyafter there’s been a manager change.

The intimidating ‘my way or the highway’ leadership style is a recipe for disaster and results in employees who are incapable of doing their best work. How can they, when ongoing harassment has left them angry, distracted, afraid and emotionally confused?

Emotionally distressed employees make more mistakes, are more likely to be absent due to stress and are more prone to workplace injuries. Associate Professor Bill Sutton of Stanford University determined that workplace productivity can decline as much as 40% when workers have to cope with the distractions of bullying. Think about that figure for a moment – can yourbusiness afford that kind of epic loss?

In places where leaders turn a blind eye to bullying, a self-perpetuating cycle often occurs:

(a) A highly skilled employee leaves as a direct result of bullying

(b) They’re replaced by someone who must be trained up to a similar level

(c) The bully gets even more frustrated, leading to more heavy-handed behaviour

As a business leader, if you’re shuffling bullying into the too-hard basket, failing to recognise it when it occurs or neglecting to take strong and immediate action to combat it, you’re part of the problem. Bullies are opportunists. They thrive in environments where strong leadership is absent.

So how can you become a more effective anti-bullying leader in your workplace?

  • Set clear bullying definitions so there’s no confusion about boundaries
  • Make worker health, well-being and happiness a priority
  • Provide a simple system for employees to report bullying incidents
  • Recognise that the most effective way to stamp out bullying is by changing the culture of an organisation
  • Have specific, well defined consequences for bullying in your company policy – and have the courage to enforce them
  • Promote a climate of trust where employees at all levels can express concerns freely without fear of reprisal (too often, reporting a bullying incident only makes life worse for the target)
  • Commit to taking action against unacceptable behaviours immediately– delays only help the bully
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance policy to bullying of any kind

Choosing to do nothing about workplace bullying is leadership failure – and from a cost-benefit perspective, there’s no upside to keeping a serial bully around.


About the author

Jessica Hickman was born in Wales and moved to Australia in 2013. Through a three-year personal ordeal with workplace bullying, she empowered herself to become a dynamic activist and advocate in the field of bullying and mental health in work, school and online environments.

Jessica worked in a Human Resources position on a Darwin-based oil and gas project in Australia. Here, she identified gaps in mental health support within the Resources industry and learned the core lessons that sparked her mission to be a change-maker, dedicated to creating safe and supportive work environments.

Jessica was a champion for positive change, winning awards and recognition for her outstanding work, but behind the scenes, Jessica suffered from extensive and prolonged workplace bullying that included physical and emotional intimidation, misogyny, threats, harassment and verbal abuse – which over time led to extreme anxiety and stress-related hospitalisation.

Although her job was to implement best practice for employee support and to encourage healthy, respectful and productive company culture, Jessica herself became the victim of a relentless workplace targeting that caused her to live in fear at her own desk. Equally ironic was the fact that her tormentor was her own HR manager, a person tasked with the professional responsibility of ensuring that this type of behaviour would not to be tolerated in the workplace.

She filed over 30 reports to upper management about her manager’s behaviour, with poor results and little or no protection. Working through her own suffering, she continued to strive to create a positive workplace culture while enduring toxic leadership behaviour that was tearing the company down. Feeling trapped and with no way out, she was torn between a desire to help others and serious thoughts about abandoning an industry that was in the midst of a rise in suicides. Bound by a visa restriction and the concern that if she left, someone she cared about would have no mental health support, she stayed put out of fear – putting her own happiness on hold to help those who needed her most.

Turning fear into fuel, Jessica now uses her valuable experience to be an advocate for positive and lasting change. Through adversity comes power, and Jessica now helps others understand the complex nature of modern bullying, educating today’s leaders about the damaging effects that toxic workforce cultures can have on personal and business success.

As the founder of Bullyology and author of ‘The Bullyologist – Breaking the Silence on Bullying’ Jessica delivers practical anti-bullying solutions for workplaces and schools.