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How to Deal With Workplace Bullying

Learn how to deal with this destructive, demoralizing, and counter-productive behavior.

By
Lisa B. Marshall,
April 3, 2009

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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.

According to a 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:

  • insults

  • curses

  • rumors

  • threats

  • humiliation

  • intimidation

  • belittling

  • offensive jokes

  • spying

  • stalking

  • withholding of information

  • unrelenting criticism

Though workplace bullying might also include physical acts, like shoving or pounding a fist, it's usually verbal.

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