Using Career Assessment to Help Bullied Clients
By Dean R. DeGroot and Liz Willis
The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees or an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above” (WBI, n.d., para. 1).
According to WBI’s latest national survey, an estimated 48.6 million Americans are bullied at work (Namie, 2021). Thirty percent reported that they had experienced bullying directly at work, up 57% from 2017. Of those who are bullied, 67% risk losing their jobs, while bullies often remain unscathed. Only 23% of perpetrators experienced any kind of consequences because of their actions: punishment, termination, or being forced to quit, for example (Namie, 2021).
Workplace bullying is harmful to both employees and organizations. Targets of bullying suffer from both physical and mental health issues (Futterman, 2004). In organizations where bullying goes unchecked, damage can happen in the form of turnover, absenteeism, and the loss of high performers who leave such environments (Sutton, 2007).
When bullied employees show up as career clients—whether they present as being bullied initially or their experience with bullying emerges gradually over the course of an engagement—career assessment can shed considerable light on their situation and offer hope for a better future.
Strategies for Gathering Assessment Data
Each component of the career assessment process, from the initial interview and formal assessment instruments, to homework and follow-up discussion, plays an important role in helping bullied clients (DeGroot & Willis, 2022).
The first two strategies below are useful when working with any client and can be particularly helpful in revealing potential vulnerabilities to bullying. The third strategy, for clients who present as being bullied, is an effective way to gather additional useful data.
- When interviewing clients, explore their attitudes toward work
When both career counselors and clients understand clients’ motivations, career choices they have made, and their overall attitudes toward work, it can aid in identifying those vulnerable to bullying. For example, clients who have been bullied are often naive when it comes to office politics and corporate culture. This can make them easy targets, whether they are timid, shy, or more outgoing. Clients who are overly focused on their work and less on their interactions with others may also be vulnerable to bullying.
- Use assessment instruments to explore client vulnerability
Some assessments measure traits related to bullying. For example, the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) measures a personality factor called “Dominance,” which concerns the need for power and influence over others. Although those scoring low on dominance won’t necessarily be bullied, and those scoring high won’t necessarily be bullies, the potential is there. In fact, bullying often occurs when people with high and low dominance work together—usually, but not always, in a boss/subordinate relationship. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior (FIRO-B) assessment and 16PF (Sixteen Personality Factors) questionnaire are also useful for exploring bullying. Both the CPI and 16PF have high validity and reliability coefficients (Wood & Hays, 2013).
- Discuss the client’s understanding of the bullying situation they’re experiencing, and find out what they have done about it
Because they are often feeling traumatized and distracted, bullied clients are usually not ready to discuss career issues objectively. However, it is important to explore the bullying situation. Why do they think the bullying happened? What have they done about it? Have they approached their employer or the Human Resources (HR) department? Asking these questions can help determine what interventions are needed, and it can also give additional insights on the client—how they handle stress and adversity, the strength of their network, and so on.
In addition to providing vital career assessment services, career practitioners can play an important partnership and support role with bullied clients. For example, if a client is not sure what steps to take, the career practitioner can help them navigate that process, including working with HR.
Benefits of Understanding Bullying for Clients
Because assessment helps clients better understand what is happening when they are being bullied or treated disrespectfully, it has several benefits, including:
- More positive thinking. Bullied clients often feel down on themselves and hopeless and may make statements such as: “I’m a victim and a loser!” “Why does this happen to me all the time?” “I feel like some kind of punching bag.” However, once they understand what is causing the bullying—that certain dynamics and factors are at play, many of which are beyond their control—they tend to feel more hopeful and positive.
- Empowerment. Understanding these dynamics can be truly empowering. It can create a pathway to learning new behaviors and taking on different roles. For example, if a bullied client tends to think that it is “not nice” to push back, they may learn that being more assertive and setting boundaries is exactly what is needed to reduce the frequency of the bullying or disrespectful behavior they are experiencing.
- Awareness of office politics. Most employees focus on their skills, knowledge, and abilities, and equate career success with doing better work. Learning how their personality, interests, and style relate to their behavior and interactions with others helps them see that their work is part of the larger organizational culture. If they want to work well with others, they may need to learn to negotiate the norms and styles of that environment—or find another environment more conducive to their needs.
Facing the Future
Career practitioners and their clients must tackle workplace bullying head-on. Career assessment can help by revealing the dynamics of bullying and giving clients the tools needed to face the future with confidence.
DeGroot, D. & Willis, L. (2022). Game plan: An insider’s guide to effective career assessment. Innerview Press LLP.
Futterman, S. (2004). When you work for a bully: Assessing your options and taking action. Croce Publishing Group, LLC.
Namie, G. (2021). 2021 WBI workplace bullying survey. https://workplacebullying.org/2021-wbi-survey/
Sutton, R. (2007). The no asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t. Warner Business Books.
Wood, C. & Hays, D. G. (2013). A counselor’s guide to career assessment instruments, 6th ed. National Career Development Association.
Workplace Bullying Institute. (n.d.). What is workplace bullying? Retrieved September 14, 2022 from http://workplacebullying.org
Dean R. DeGroot is a licensed psychologist and business consultant who has helped individuals and organizations navigate change through career assessment and other services for over thirty years. He has a particular interest in workplace dynamics, including job fit, job satisfaction, bullying and disrespectful behavior. Dean holds a master’s degree in behavior analysis and therapy from Southern Illinois University. He is past president of the Minnesota Career Development Association and received the Marty Dockman Merit Award and Jules Kerlan Outstanding Achievement Award for his contributions to the profession. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Liz Willis is a writer and editor with an interest in career development and the obstacles that keep people from realizing their dreams. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Alberta and a master’s degree in library and information science from Western University. You can reach her at email@example.com