Bullying in the Workplace

by Sherry Rossiter

Bullying in the workplace is often the precursor to actual violence. The United Kingdom and Australia have led the way in identifying workplace "bully behavior" and the State of California is looking at legislation to protect employees who are victims of workplace bullying.

The first step to stop bullying in the workplace is to recognize that it is happening. When your manager or coworker resorts to screaming, or threatens to fire you if you don't do what he or she demands, that is bullying. Bullying is a form of harassment and creates a hostile work environment. No employee should be subjected to bullying tactics.

One U.S. study estimates that 1 in 5 American workers has experienced workplace bullying in the past year. Common tactics of workplace bullies include verbal abuse such as swearing or personal ridicule, persistent sexual or racial characterizations, physical force, and threats with or without weapons present. Bullying, which is considered general harassment, is many times more prevalent in the workplace than sexual or racial harassment.

Regardless of tactics used, a bully's main goal is power and control over another person. Bullying tactics are designed to intimidate and create fear, so the other person will do whatever the bully wants. According to a Canadian study, over 80% of workplace bullies are managers or bosses.

While most schoolyard bullies pick on a child who is generally considered odd, weak, or otherwise set apart from the rest of the group, workplace bullies most often target an employee who is well-liked by coworkers, professionally competent, and loyal to the organization. The usual targets of workplace bullying are generally employees able to work collaboratively with non-confrontive personal styles, which only serves to prolong the bully behavior.

Adult bullies, like their schoolyard counterparts, tend to be insecure people with poor or non-existent social skills and little empathy. Bullies turn this insecurity outward, finding satisfaction in their ability to attack or diminish the capable people around them. Workplace bullies like to humiliate the target, especially in front of others. They often choose to ignore the targeted employee or exclude them from meetings or important communication.

Workplace bullying takes on a particularly nasty flavor when the bully is the targeted employee's superior. In these cases, the bully often sets the target up for failure by either piling on more work than it is possible to do in the time allotted or, conversely, by taking all the target's work away. Another way that a superior can cause an employee to fail using bully tactics is by increasing responsibility and accountability while removing resources and authority.

Researcher Gary Namie, PhD, of the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute (WBTI) concludes there are four types of bullies:

  • Chronic Bullies attempt to dominate others in almost every encounter and appear to have diagnosable character disorders (i.e., antisocial, narcissistic, or even borderline personality disorders) based on DSM-IV-TR criteria.

  • Opportunistic Bullies are the ones most likely to be encountered in the workplace. They believe the path to success is by squashing or eliminating their perceived competitors, and they will do whatever it takes to accomplish that.

  • Accidental Bullies are "benign" according to Namie. He believes that accidental bullies are basically socially unaware or inept, and that when confronted with their bully-like behavior, they will immediately retreat and/or apologize.

  • Substance Abusing Bullies, however, can be dangerous. All expectations for rational behavior and logical thinking on their part should be put aside.

According to data collected and analyzed by Namie during anonymous and confidential online surveys conducted in 2003, one's physical and mental health can literally be affected upon becoming the target of workplace bullying. At least 33 physical and emotional symptoms were reported by respondents to the survey. Anxiety, stress, and excessive worry were reported by 76% of the respondents; and disturbance in sleep and/or loss of concentration were reported by 71%. Actual heart attacks were reported by 3% of the respondents.

A targeted employee's first recourse is to report the bullying behavior to management or the Human Resources department, but that alone is generally not enough to stop a workplace bully. The employee also needs to limit his or her interactions with the bully and "document, document, document." Fortunately, with the extensive use of e-mail and voice mail in today's workplace, it is much easier for an employee to limit face-to-face interactions with a bullying boss or coworker. Some employees believe limiting contact with the bully is cowardly; but the reality is that protecting oneself from ridicule and harassment is an intelligent and healthy thing to do.

According to the 2003 WBTI online survey, only 4% of workplace bullying stopped with the application of punishment or sanctions to the bully. Unless the employer is willing to transfer or terminate the bully, workplace bullies face a low risk of being held accountable, and therefore, have little incentive to stop their bully behavior. This means that the targeted employee often has no other option than to seek new employment.

So specifically, what can we career counselors and coaches do to assist employees who have been targets of workplace bullying? The most important thing we can do is to help the employee rebuild self-esteem and self-respect. The targets of workplace bullies have a tendency to believe that they were targeted because they just might be "deficient" in some way that they don't understand. Helping these clients rewrite their resumes can do wonders for dispelling this belief and rebuilding a sense of personal worth and professional value. Another strategy is to help the client realistically assess his or her career options. Finally, career development professionals can provide much needed encouragement and emotional support while the employee is "repositioning" within the same or a different company.

Certainly, the personal and professional problems created for the targeted employee are clear. However, employers don't always understand the problem that bullying in the workplace creates for them in terms of health, safety, and employee retention. If left unchecked, workplace bullying often results in the loss of top-notch employees, as every career development professional can readily attest.

SHERRY ROSSITER, PhD, LCPC, is a career counselor and HR consultant based in Missoula, Montana. Her background includes 16 years in private practice with career counseling and trauma recovery clients, over 4 years as an on-site contracted career counselor at Hewlett-Packard, and 12 years HR/ management consulting experience. Contact her in care of Eagle Enterprises at ssrossiter@aol.com.

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