November 8th, 2011

How to Deal With the Workplace Bully

by Frank Kalman, Talent Management, Nov. 8, 2011

About a third of the U.S. workforce has fallen victim to workplace bullying. Learning to mitigate the problem means creating a more open work environment and crafting a stern anti-bullying policy.

The image of the schoolyard bully is heavily ingrained in our culture. Name a television show centered on American youth within the last half century, and it’s more than likely that at least one episode will be dedicated to the smaller, scrawnier kid doing his very best to avoid — or in some instances, defeat — the intimidating figure.

While the notion of the big, bad bully has been spotlighted in a number of television shows and movies, the practice in real life is undeniably serious. At the school level, instances of bullying have been attributed with causing a range of societal harms: absenteeism, violence, youth suicide and the like.

Although constant attention is given to youth-related bullying at schools, the less-talked-about form of bullying is that which occurs in the workplace.

According to a 2010 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute, a research firm and consultancy on the subject, 35 percent of U.S. workers — or an estimated 53.5 million Americans — have experienced some form of bullying in the workplace, while another 15 percent claimed to have witnessed it.

“[It’s] epidemic; however, it is still a primarily un-discussable topic in organizations, and that’s why so many people are driven out in silence and without acknowledgement,” said Gary Namie, the director of the Workplace Bullying Institute and a trained social psychologist and business consultant.

Different from workplace harassment, which is generally considered a form of illegal discrimination, bullying is “often directed at someone a bully feels threatened by,” according to an April 2011 report by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries titled “Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“The target often doesn’t even realize when they are being bullied because the behavior is covert, through trivial circumstances and isolating actions that occur behind closed doors … While harassment is illegal, bullying in the workplace is not,” the report states.

In fact, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is four times more prevalent at work than harassment.

“We define it as abusive conduct — health-harming, abusive conduct that takes the form of repeated mistreatment [or] verbal abuse or threats, intimidation or humiliation,” Namie said.

Aside from the negative impact workplace bullying has on people — high stress, absence, reduced self-esteem, depression, sleep problems — bullying can cause turnover in an organization as well as a loss of productivity. High costs associated with investigations of potential ill treatment or, in some cases, legal action are also common.

The Workplace Bullying Institute breaks workplace bullying into different categories.

• The “screaming meanies.” These office bullies may be yelling or cursing at their target in public. Namie dubbed this the “Bobby Knight” approach in reference to the famously irate and emotional former head coach of Indiana University’s men’s basketball team.

• The constant critic. This individual tries behind closed doors to distort the appraisal or evaluation of a particular employee, claiming that the target is incompetent. “That starts to shatter the person’s sense of integrity and they’ll fall apart in a matter of a few months,” Namie said.

• The “control freak.” Oftentimes bullies deem themselves the “gatekeeper” to all resources; they in turn bully by refusing to allow access to these resources to certain employees, potentially hindering those employees’ work performance as a result.

This begs the question: Why hasn’t more attention been placed on the issue? For one, bullying isn’t technically illegal, and in many of the cases may be difficult to detect — the culprit will almost always deny any accusation. But another reason may be political: Those in management positions often end up taking on the role of the bully, so employees may be afraid to report instances they deem as bullying so as not to lose favor with their superiors.

This is something many employees may not want to do, given the frail economic environment. With the job market in disarray, employees may be staying in a poor job situation longer, leaving them subject to more abuse and harm on behalf of a workplace bully. Namie said in the past, it was more common for abused employees to quit and take their talents elsewhere.

Additionally, equally due to the scarcity of jobs, workers may be growing meaner at work, trying to blow down anyone in their path if it means greater job security and standing. “An otherwise very kind and gentle person [could become] a wholly terror at work if they believe that’s what it’s going to take to stay employed and get ahead,” he said.

Hampering Job Growth?

Others claim that a more acute form of workplace bullying takes place after an employee leaves. This may occur when a prospective employer conducts reference checks, and the former employer offers negative feedback.

Most companies have a policy where only titles and dates of employment of a former employee can be verified upon a reference check. The idea is that any other feedback — whether it is positive or negative — could create potential legal trouble for the company.

Still, many fail to abide by this, harming unemployed individuals’ chances of getting back into the workforce, said Jeff Shane, vice president of Allison & Taylor, a reference checking company.

Shane’s firm gets hired by clients, many of whom are unemployed, to conduct reference checks to make sure former supervisors are not giving negative feedback to potential employers. Those who do offer negative feedback — and whose corporate policy is strictly against the practice — are documented and might receive a “cease and desist” letter, threatening further legal action. Even if such unfavorable information is factual, if the company has a strict policy on the matter, legal action can be taken, Shane said.

“We have found, unfortunately, that about half of the thousands of checks we conduct do indeed come back with some form of negative information,” he said.

Being Proactive Pays Off

Preventing traditional workplace bullying, however, is more complex. According to the Washington State Department report, employees can regain control of the situation by first recognizing or acknowledging that the bullying is taking place. The report then recommends keeping detailed documentation on specific occurrences.

As for talent managers, encouraging office open-door policies and starting awareness campaigns on the subject is a starting point. Crafting detailed and compliant anti-bullying policies that differ from a firm’s anti-harassment policy is also one way to start to mitigate the problem, the report said.

Namie, through the Healthy Workforce Campaign, has been championing that a bill get passed to make bullying in the workforce unlawful. The bill, titled the “Healthy Workplace Bill,” has been introduced in 21 states since 2003. Some states have taken more kindly to the bill than others, but it has yet to pass. “We’re getting closer,” Namie said.

Despite efforts to get legal action taken on workplace bullying, prevention must go further than policy or law. The root of the problem is cultural. Organizations need to take a hard look and evaluate if the work environment they’ve laid out is enabling the behavior.

“Until the executive team is willing to say, ‘We don’t need to be abusive to be successful,’ [anti-bullying programs] will go nowhere,” Namie said.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011 at 10:45 am and is filed under WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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