Q: I hear a lot about workplace bullying. Could you tell me what this involves, the impact and what can be done about it?
A: Great question. We hear a lot about bullying of children and adolescents, especially in schools, but bullying can also occur at work.
Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed toward an employee (or a group of employees), which is intended to intimidate and creates a risk to the health and safety of the employee(s).
Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying includes behavior that intimidates, degrades, offends or humiliates a worker, often in front of others. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work.
Bullying is different from aggression. Aggression may involve a single act and bullying involves repeated attacks against the target, creating an ongoing pattern of behavior. “Tough” or “demanding” bosses are not necessarily bullies, as long as their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high expectations. Many bullying situations involve employees bullying their peers, rather than a supervisor bullying an employee.
Examples of Bullying
• Unwarranted or invalid criticism
• Blame without factual justification
• Being treated differently than the rest of your work group
• Being sworn at
• Exclusion or social isolation
• Being shouted at or being humiliated
• Being the target of practical jokes
• Excessive monitoring
Corporate/institutional bullying occurs when bullying is entrenched in an organization and becomes accepted as part of the workplace culture. Corporate/institutional bullying can manifest itself in different ways.
• Placing unreasonable expectations on employees, where failure to meet those expectations means making life unpleasant for (or dismissing) anyone who objects.
• Dismissing employees suffering from stress as “weak” while completely ignoring or denying potential work-related causes of the stress.
• Encouraging employees to fabricate complaints about colleagues with promises of promotion or threats of discipline.
• Failure to meet organizational goals.
• Increased frequencies of grievances, resignations and requests for transfers.
• Increased absence due to sickness.
• Increased disciplinary actions.
Factors That Increase the Risk for Bullying Behavior
• Significant organizational change (i.e., major internal restructuring, technological change).
• Worker characteristics (i.e., age, gender, parental status, apprentice or trainee).
• Workplace relationships (i.e., inadequate information flow between organizational levels, lack of employee participation in decisions).
• Work systems (i.e., lack of policies about behavior, high rate and intensity of work, staff shortages, interpersonal conflict, organization constraints, role ambiguity and role conflict).
How Bullying Affects People
Victims of bullying experience significant physical and mental health issues:
• High stress
• Financial concerns due to absence
• Reduced self-esteem
• Musculoskeletal concerns
• Increased depression/self-blame
• Digestive concerns
How Bullying Affects Organizations
Each of the individual consequences listed above can be very costly for the organization. Costs of bullying generally fall into three categories:
1. Replacing staff members that leave as a result of being bullied.
2. Work effort being displaced as staff cope with bullying incidents (i.e., effort being directed away from work productivity and toward coping).
3. Costs associated with investigations of ill treatment and potential legal action.
Bullies do not run good organizations; staff turnover and sick leave will be high while morale and productivity will be low. Stress, depression and physical health concerns result in time away from work that is costly in terms of worker’s compensation and lost productivity
The health concerns experienced by victims of bullying result in a sense of helplessness and negative emotional states among employee(s). Low self-esteem and a negative organizational climate suppress creativity and hamper employees’ abilities to respond to difficult situations or challenging goals.
The breakdown of trusts in a bullying environment may mean that employees will fail to contribute their best work, do not give extra ideas for improvement, do not provide feedback on failures and may be less honest about performance.
However, here is what you can do about bullying:
Regain control by:
• Recognizing that you are being insulted
• Realizing that you are not the source of the problem
• Recognizing that bullying is about control, and therefore has nothing to do with your performance.
Take Action By:
• Keeping a diary detailing the nature of the bullying (i.e., dates, times, places, what was said or done and who was present).
• Obtaining copies of harassing/bullying paper trails; hold onto copies of documents that contradict the bully’s accusations against you (i.e., time sheets, audit reports, etc.).
• Expecting the bully to deny and perhaps misconstrue your accusations; have a witness with you during any meetings with the bully; report the behavior to an appropriate person.
Create a zero tolerance anti-bullying policy. This policy should be part of the wider commitment to a safe and healthful working environment and should involve the appropriate human resources representative.
When witnessed or reported, the bullying behavior should be addressed immediately. If bullying is entrenched in the organization, complaints need to be taken seriously and investigated promptly. Reassignment of those involved may be necessary (with an “innocent until proven guilty” approach).
Structure the work environment to incorporate a sense of autonomy, individual challenge/mastery and clarity of task expectations for employees. Include employees in decision-making processes.
Hold awareness campaigns for everyone on what bullying is. Encourage reporting. Ensure management has an active part in the staff they supervise, rather than being far removed from them.
Encourage open door policies. Investigate the extent and nature of the concern. Conduct attitude surveys.
Improve management’s ability and sensitivity toward dealing with and responding to conflicts.
Establish an independent contact for employees (i.e., human resources contact).
Have a demonstrated commitment “from the top” about what is and is not acceptable behavior. individual employees, but also to leaders