July 24th, 2013

Financial Chronicle: Beware the Bully at Work


Bullying at the workplace creates a toxic ‘divide and conquer’ environ that prevents positive teamwork and collaboration

By Skaku Selvakumar, Financial Chronicle, July 19, 2013

Dig a little deep. Go back a few years, or maybe some decades. Remember that bully who made your life miserable at school? And you thought, “hey thank goodness, I am not in school any more.” Well, not so fast, my friend. You just might be bullied at work. According to Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 per cent of the adult workforce has experienced bullying first hand and an additional 15 per cent witness it and are vicariously made miserable. Bullying ranges from verbal abuse, to conduct that is threatening and humiliating. It can also include intimidation, exploiting a psychological or physical vulnerability, and at its worst, actual sabotage of the victims’ work.

Bullying affects the bottom line and creates a toxic “divide and conquer” environment, which prevents positive teamwork and collaboration.

Dr Gary Namie who heads the Workplace Bullying Institute, shares some alarming facts and the impact to organisations where bullies are allowed to thrive.

Q. You mention that bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment. Can you elaborate on this?

Bullying goes beyond illegal harassment and ignores gender, ethnicity and race. We have identified that it occurs alone in 80 per cent of the cases and the remaining 20 per cent is a compound of other factors. As there are no state laws yet, in the vast majority of the cases there is no illegality. The individuals have nothing to fall back on as there is nothing that can be done about it with a legal umbrella. This also allows employers to ignore it and the bully continues to act with impunity.

Victims often suffer in silence. Our studies showed that 28 per cent voluntarily quit. 25 per cent were terminated. 25 per cent are constructively discharged some resorting to medical leave. 11 per cent seek a transfer. Unfortunately, when it is escalated, only 5 per cent of the perpetuators are terminated and 6 per cent are punished.

Q. With more economical turbulence and downsizing, how does this compare year to year and do you foresee actions being taken to address this malaise?

People have to stay in their jobs. There are no escape outlets. Bullying becomes a management tool and a tactic. The consequence is that targets get sicker and the employer gets less productive. In our survey, we found that 72 per cent of the bullies are bosses, 18 per cent co-worker and 10 per cent subordinate. The alliteration of bully boss is actually true. Male and female bullies use different tactics. Men tend to use referent power they talk about how closely connected to their executives and are not afraid to pull rank. Women bullies target women in 80 per cent of the cases. They destroy the social fabric of the work team and often use rumour and gossip where they will pit worker against worker. Co-workers don’t have the leverage to take your livelihood away. They can make your life miserable, though, by alienation.

Q. Those who get targeted most frequently are the most skilled person in the work group. Why is this?

From our study and conversations with thousands of targets, the ones who are most skilled often pose a threat to the bullies. They are independent and refuse to be subservient. Bullies seek to dominate targets and steal their work, as they can’t stand to share credit.

Q. What are the psychological and physiological effects of ongoing bullying?

We know from the stress research, prolonged exposure to bullying changes the brain structure. Stress hormones can render us less able to recall long term stored information and the victim becomes less competent over a long time. Depression and anxiety can lead to sleep and other stress related disorders. You come to work fatigued. If you have a white-collar job, you will make errors. If you have a blue-collar job, you will have accidents. These issues will further validate the bully’s original premise that you are incompetent.

It is not one single incident, but a pattern of long exposure and a drip effect of minor incidents that lead to ongoing stress. You never get the rest and you body gets worn out. Finally you lose your ability to be productive. In extreme cases, bullying has resulted in suicide.

As many as 30 per cent of the victims suffer PST, 49 per cent clinical depression, 85 per cent debilitating anxiety. These result in cardiovascular health problems and gastro intestinal problems. The physiological and psychological coalesce as the body doesn’t separate them.

Q. What is the cost to the organisation?

Tangible costs are the turnover of the best and the brightest. So you have replacement costs. There are the intangible costs. Absenteeism can be calculated as financial loss. You also have litigation costs. Finally, companies suffer from the backlash of the negative brand image.

Q. What is the solution?

In today’s increasingly transparent and socially connected world, companies and their leaders cannot afford to tolerate bullies at work. Our advice to leaders is to start by recognising that bullying happens in the organisation you lead. Demonstrate empathy for employees and believe the reports they bring to your attention. Commit to action and do not cover-up or retaliate.

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