September 27th, 2013

Billings Gazette: Adult bullies take toll on U.S. workers, businesses

By Catherine Card
Catherine is an ordained Lutheran minister (ELCA) and a health physicist.

It is encouraging to see public school officials at last recognizing and taking steps to prevent bullying among children and older students. However, we have ignored the equally significant problem of bullying among adults, especially as it plays out in the workplace. We are incredibly naïve, or in denial, when we fail to take seriously the bullying behavior we adults display almost routinely. Where do we suppose our children learn to be bullies?

Considerable research about bullying in the workplace has been done in Scandinavian countries and the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States. Yet little public attention has been given to the prevalence of such bullying and to the negative impact it has on the individuals who are targeted, as well the organizations where it occurs.

Bullying is a costly behavioral disease that is both individual and corporate in nature. An individual can act as a bully, but an entire organization can have a bullying nature as well. Bullying consists of repeated, intentional actions designed to do harm to the target person or persons. Some examples of bullying behavior are: ridiculing or accusing a person in front of others, being physically or verbally intimidating, damaging a person’s reputation by rumor or gossip, setting impossible or conflicting deadlines in order to undermine a person’s productivity, treating an individual differently from the rest of the work group, lying about a person’s performance and retaliating against a person for complaining.

Researchers suggest that the majority of bullies found in the workplace are women and, overwhelmingly, their targets are other women. [WBI note: This is partially correct. In 2010 we found that most bullies are men (62%), but when the bully is a women, she targets women 80% of the time.] Studies also suggest that people who demonstrate bullying behavior have themselves been the targets of bullies. This contagious nature of bullying is a great reason to recognize it when it happens and address it promptly.

But addressing the bullying that takes place at work can be a difficult and risky undertaking. Remember, bullying is all about wielding power and control over those who are less powerful and instilling fear in them and any others who might be looking on. Confronting the bully can cost status, relationships, even one’s job. Too often a person’s bullying behavior becomes the elephant in the room that no one wants to confront.

That was the case when I went to work as a chaplain for a hospice organization a few years ago. Beginning with the first staff meeting I attended, I observed the supervisor belittling certain workers in front of everyone else. My co-workers were quick to explain that the supervisor had behaved that way for as long as they had known her; but no one dared to do anything about it for fear of losing their job.

Sometimes I came across co-workers in the restrooms crying after an encounter with this supervisor. One of my co-workers became frantic when she received a phone call from the supervisor, telling my co-worker she wanted to meet with her. My co-worker was terrified that she was going to be fired without warning. She had seen that happen before. And a month later she saw it happen again when I was suddenly fired without warning after first trying to address the bullying behavior with the supervisor herself and then reporting it to the human resources department.

This is an example of the devastation bullying can cause. Studies of individuals who have been the targets of bullying show that they can suffer from depression, anxiety to the point of having digestive and sleep disturbances and stress to the point of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Lost income and difficulties in relationships with family and friends can be additional costs.

There are also significant costs to organizations that tolerate bullying among their employees, including: employee absences, grievances, resignations and requests for transfer; difficulties meeting organizational goals; legal costs associated with investigations and lawsuits; and damage to the organization’s reputation.

It does not make sense to stand against bullying among our children and yet remain quiet about bullying among us adults, especially in the workplace. Bullying behavior is destructive, costly and wrong wherever it develops.

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