How to Deal With Workplace Bullying
Learn how to deal with this destructive, demoralizing, and counter-productive behavior.
Here's part of a longer email that I received:
I work for a family-based, medium-sized company. I am one of twelve employees working in our corporate office. The owner of the company is “Dad” and his two sons and daughter work here too. One of the sons always singles me out to be the butt of his jokes.
Our office manager, his wife, never says anything to him. When I come back at him, he turns that into a joke as well. I am having difficulty combating his “jokester” image and also my “butt of the joke” image. Please HELP!
Unfortunately, this is just one of many emails that have asked me to help with workplace bullying. Every email is the same in the sense that writer has been targeted by someone who asserts power through aggressive acts.
Unfortunately, I’m not an expert in workplace bullying, but I felt compelled to respond. So today's episode will be a summary of what I learned while researching this issue. My hope is that it will help us all to better understand workplace bullying and provide some resources for those facing this difficult situation. Most of all, I hope it encourages all of us to show compassion and standup for the people we work with.
You’re Not Alone
Most importantly, if you are target of a bully in the workplace, you should know that you are not alone. Workplace bullying is a very serious organizational issue.
According to a 2007 survey in the US, 37% of American workers--an estimated 54 million people-- have been bullied at work. (Another survey reported about 40% in Brazil, 32% in Bulgaria, 52% in South Africa, 48% in Thailand, and up to 67% in Australia). In the UK, the University of Manchester reports that bullying accounts for up to half of all employment stress. But the negative impact is not limited to just the target; as you would expect, workplace bullying also creates a demoralizing environment for people who witness it. According to that US survey, if you include witnesses, bullying affects almost half (49%) of American workers.
Unlike sexual harassment or racial discrimination, general harassment or bullying is legal in the US and the UK; although, some countries (Canada, Sweden, France) have recently implemented laws.
What Exactly is Workplace Bullying?
So, what exactly is workplace bullying? There isn't a single, specific definition; however, most researchers describe it as persistent hostile communication including verbal and nonverbal aggression. Practically speaking, bullying at work may take the following forms:
withholding of information
Though workplace bullying might also include physical acts, like shoving or pounding a fist, it's usually verbal.
A Case of Workplace Bullying
Last year I read about a case involving two physicians. According to the article, a surgeon was operating when his colleague entered and made a remark. That started a quarrel, and the colleague then "Pulled the ear of the operating doctor, slapped him in the face and walked out...An all-out fight ensued, resulting in bruises, a split lit, loose teeth and a fractured finger." Are you wondering what happened to the patient? Another doctor did the surgery while they were fighting.
Anyway, to be very clear, workplace bullying is not a one-off event. The situation usually escalates over time. Workplace bullying involves repeated, targeted, psychological violence, that’s repeated inappropriate behaviors, by a single person or by a group of people (which, by the way, is called mobbing). It's important to mention that workplace bullying isn’t not tough-but-fair management, and it's not the same as corrective feedback or normal conflict, either.
Cost of Workplace Bullying
Workplace bullying damages a target’s mental and physical health. It costs organizations millions, if not billions, due to lost productivity and staff turnover.
A University of North Carolina survey stated that 53% of targets lost work time worrying about future encounters with the perpetrator, 28% lost work time in an effort to avoid the instigator, 12% actually changed jobs, and 37% believed their commitment to the organization changed because of what they had encountered.
Being bullied makes people feel vulnerable, isolated and frustrated, and may lead to stress-related illnesses like constant headaches, weight loss, ulcers, or even kidney problems. Workplace bullying can also affect relationships with family and friends.
Some targets feel ashamed and that they must have done something to deserve it, which opens them to more bullying. Some let the stress build until one day they emotionally react and lash out at the bully. (I’m guessing that’s what happened with the doctor who was operating.) Unfortunately in these cases, the victim is typically fired or transferred. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute "more than 80 percent of those bullied lose their jobs and 41 percent suffer clinical depression."
What Should Targets of Workplace Bullying Do?
So, what should you do if you’re currently a target? Several experts suggest that the first step is to label what's going on. Realize that it’s not your fault. It’s a myth that only quiet or “weak” people are victimized. Though they generally pick on people who avoid social confrontation, workplace bullies will also pick on the popular or successful if they perceive them as threats.
Experts suggest that you initially take some time off work (if it’s possible). While you are away, start thinking about gathering evidence. Create and keep a detailed document in which you record dates, times, and locations related to each verbal attack or aggressive act.
[[AdMiddle]The next step according to the experts is to expose the bully when you return back to work. Write to the bully after each incident, objectively stating your observation of his or her behavior. Ask if she would want a member of her family treated this way. Most importantly ask him or her to stop. Maybe even send copies to senior management and HR. It is extremely important to report factual behaviors only (like the specific words of a joke told or the tone of the voice). You want to avoid character assassination (like, “you were a childish jerk when you told that offensive joke yesterday).
Though some suggest directly confronting the bully in front of others, others suggest making a business case to senior management explaining why it’s so expensive to keep the bully (how many people have left because of him, how many days out of office because of him, disruptions, loss of productivity). If nothing changes or the situation gets worse, then you need to seriously consider leaving the organization for your health’s sake. I provided several links to resources and experts in the show notes.
What if You Just Observe Workplace Bullying?
Finally, if you are an observer of bullying you have a role to play too. Don’t sit idly by. Bullying is an extremely detrimental practice that should not be tolerated. It’s morally wrong and we all have a responsibility to not let it continue by staying quiet. Aid your fellow co-workers by being alert for signs of workplace bullying, and by banning together in support. Also, each of you can suggest implementing a bully policy where you work or consider supporting pending state legislation. Each of us, as fellow humans, can show compassion and not allow this to continue.
I received a tweet from Bill Polymenakos and it summarizes this issue well:
Billpoly: @lisabmarshall Workplace bullies = Among the most disruptive, demoralizing, and counter-productive forces in the workplace.
Let’s work together to fix this problem.
This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication and compassion; your success is my business.
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References & Links
Women Bullies Often Target Other Women (must watch)