July 16th, 2012

Forum: Abuse at the water cooler — Bullying in the workplace

By J. Shane Mercer, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, ND

Her boss yelled, swore, pounded on the desk, and even talked of demoting her, Dawn recalled.

The Bismarck resident said she arrived at work five minutes late. Her boss told her there was a meeting that morning at 8, a claim she says wasn’t true. He said she let him down.

She remembers crying.

It wouldn’t be the last confrontation.

“And you never knew when it was coming or what it would be for,” Dawn said.

She dreaded going to work and even changed her schedule to avoid him.

The term “bullying” may bring to mind images of the tough kid on the playground, but it happens in the workplace more often than you think.

Gary Namie, director of the Washington-state-based Workplace Bullying Institute, said 2010 research found 35 percent of respondents had been bullied on the job. And 9 percent of those said they were currently facing such treatment.

Workplace bullying is “repeated health-harming mistreatment by one or more perpetrators. It takes the form of verbal abuse … threats, intimidation, humiliation or work sabotage,” Namie said.

It can include telling jokes in which an individual is ridiculed, excluding a co-worker from social and/or work functions, withholding information needed to do one’s job and tampering with work equipment.

It can also be much more than just frustrating. Linda Keup, associate professor in Concordia College’s Offutt School of Business, pointed to the stress, the sense of frustration, and the helplessness, vulnerability and anxiety.

“And then you get into the physical symptoms of not being able to sleep, not having an appetite, stomach distress, headaches,” Keup said.

A 2011 Psychology Today article on bullying in the workplace described a study of more than 3,100 men over a 10-year period. It reported that, “Employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative … were 60 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition.”

Jane Pettinger is an adjunct professor in the Minnesota State University Moorhead School of Business and owns the Improving Human Resources firm in Fargo. She believes workplace bullying doesn’t just harm employees. She believes it’s also a bottom-line issue.

“If your employees are feeling harassed or bullied, they are going to have a higher incidence of absenteeism because there are going to be days where they just can’t tolerate the idea of going to work,” she said. Pettinger also pointed to lowered productivity and increased use of health care benefits.

“It eats a hole in their budget,” Namie said. “It costs (employers) a fortune in turnover because of the people who flee to get out from under that abusive manager or that crazy, lunatic co-worker.”

Namie also cited research showing co-workers and those who witness bullying “are almost as upset by watching it as the target is by living it. So there’s absenteeism by everybody”

Keup said the vast majority of workplace bullies are superiors. It can also be pear-to-peer, she said.

Subordinates can even bully their supervisor. Pettinger recalled a case of employees doing just that.

“And so she would say, ‘We’re going to have a meeting at this time,’ and they’d all show up late. Or she’d say, ‘I need you to handle this case,’ and they’d say, ‘I don’t feel like handling that case. I’m going to give it to Joanne,’ ” Pettinger said. “Anything that she did that was asserting her authority, they would just sort of throw back in her face.

“They were making it impossible for her to be successful at her job,” Pettinger said. “These were college-educated, professional people.”

In the Psychology Today article, Lisa M.S. Barrow, author of “In Darkness Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying,” described bullies as typically possessing “a Type A personality; they are competitive and appear driven, operating as they do from a sense of urgency.

“This has its advantages in the workplace but the shadow side of Type A is the tendency to become frustrated and verbally abusive when things don’t go according to plan,” Barrow wrote. “Impatience and temper tantrums are common for Type A individuals who haven’t engaged in the personal growth required to gain self-awareness, maintain emotional stability and consider situations from multiple points of view.”

Barrow went on to write that contrary to conventional wisdom, “the targets of office bullies are not the new, inexperienced and less confident employees. The targets, according to research, are the highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular employees. And making them targets makes it harder for them to get notice or reprieve. Independent, experienced workers pose the greatest threat to the bullies.”

Keup, of Concordia, said the majority of bullies tend to be male, with more of the victims being female. If a female is a bully, the target is more likely to be another female. Male bullies are more likely to bully females, Keup said.

Pettinger said employers need to be out among their workers, which makes bosses more approachable for those who need to report abuse. It also puts them in a position to witness and prevent abuse, she said.

Pettinger has a mantra when it comes to dealing with bullying in the workplace. She emphasizes the need for employers to create a cultural norm in the workplace that, in her words, “holds respect for all employees, all co-workers, to a very high level of importance.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

Signs that a co-worker is being bullied

• Rise in absenteeism

• In group settings, lack of eye contact between one person and another

• Isolation of the individual

What to do if you are the target of bullying

• Ask them to stop the behavior.

• Keep records. Document what happened, when it happened, where it happened, who witnessed the behavior, etc. Keep memos and emails.

• Report the behavior to human resources with documentation.

• Linda Keup of the Offutt School of Business at Concordia suggests organizations consider creating a workplace behavior civility policy. Such guidelines provide human resources and employees more foundation to stand on in terms of what the organization will not tolerate.

What to do if you witness workplace bullying

• If it seems appropriate, call on the person not to continue that type of behavior.

• Document what happened, including time, date, location, witnesses, etc.

• Report the behavior.


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