April 20th, 2012

iVillage: Are You Being Bullied at Work? Here’s What to Do

No one is too old to be bullied. Find out how to protect yourself

by Jeannette Moninger, iVillage

At first, Deb F. was flattered when a higher-up at a Boston-area university showed an interest in her work. Then things changed. “For no reason, the supervisor badmouthed my work, left me out of important decision-making meetings and assigned my projects to others.” At 31, Deb had become a victim of workplace bullying.

Bullies at work aren’t new, but awareness about the problem is growing thanks in part to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s (WBI) efforts to get states to pass an anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. “A third of American workers are bullied,” says WBI co-founder Gary Namie, Ph.D., coauthor of The Bully-Free Workplace. Even more unsettling: Workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination, yet it’s not illegal. For now, the best you can do if you’re targeted by a work bully is to arm yourself with this knowledge.

Distinguish between bullying and harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits acts of harassment, which typically center on physical traits or characteristics like race, color, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disabilities. “If you’re white, able-bodied, or the same gender as your bully, you really have no legal recourse,” says Namie.

Recognize the problem. Bullying occurs when an employee is repeatedly subjected to verbal abuse; threatening or humiliating offensive behaviors; and/or work sabotage. “We’re talking about mistreatment that happens once a week or more for several months,” says Namie.

Beware of the health effects. Almost half of bullied workers suffer from stress-related health problems like anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. A third develop post-traumatic stress disorder. “My self-esteem took a hit,” says Deb. “I couldn’t sleep. I worked in a constant state of fear.”

Know your limits. Almost three-fourths of instigators are in positions of power. Fear of retribution keeps most coworkers from speaking out (only 1 out of 100 tries to help). Sadly, going to human resources (as Deb did) probably won’t help. “They defended management, and things only got worse for me once the bully found out,” says Deb, who left her job after a year. “The bullying took too much of a toll on my mental and physical health.”

4 Steps for Handling Workplace Bullying

  1. Talk to an attorney. Discrimination plays a role in a quarter of bullying cases. A lawyer can help identify whether your employer has violated any laws.
  2. Plan a counterattack. “Show higher-ups — not HR — how the bullying negatively affects profitability,” says Namie. This means putting a dollar amount to what it costs the company to recruit and replace employees scared off by the bully, as well as absenteeism and lost productivity.
  3. Start a job search. Exposing the bully is cathartic; unfortunately, it’s unlikely to change things. The odds that you’ll quit or be terminated are nearly 70 percent. Get your resume out now.
  4. Lobby your state legislators. The Healthy Workplace Bill is currently under consideration in 13 states. Visit HealthyWorkplaceBill.org to learn how you can help get it passed.

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  1. Jay Jacobus says:

    None of the suggestions worked for me. I am still disabled and unemployed.

    I am the example of what a system without help can do to a person.

  2. J. says:

    I filed EEOC (and state) charges against my employer and I am also a former attorney. As someone who has seen discrimination from both sides (victim and attorney), I have an additional suggestion for those who may need to file discrimination charges. Visit the EEOC website and the applicable state website as soon as you believe you have experienced discrimination. The EEOC’s site is easy to understand and easy to use and it clearly outlines unlawful discrimination and defines protected classes in language that is simple. It also explains the time limitations and those are critical. It will be easier to talk with the attorney if you go in having a basic idea what unlawful discrimination means and how it might apply to you – it will help you know what questions to ask and it will help you explain your problem. Going into the attorney’s office as well informed as possible is important because talking to an attorney is not easy – and finding one is even more difficult. Don’t be discouraged if you go through several attorneys before you find one who is interested, or you feel comfortable working with.

    I tried to quantify loss of productivity and ran into trouble. Even with a Ph.D. in finance and minor in economics, I could not do it and it is the sort of research I do regularly.

    If the target is in academia, I have a caution about job searches. It is necessary to look, but be careful. Does your bully know anyone at the institution where you are planning to apply? As paranoid as that may sound, it is worth considering. I have two friends (former targets of my primary bully) who began applying for jobs when the torture became unbearable. Both lost potential jobs because the dean of our college directly, or indirectly though one of her administrative sycophants, interfered by contacting the institutions where they had applied.

    When universities conduct faculty searches, it is fairly common for a committee member to covertly contact someone at the applicants current place of employment – sometimes a committee member will have a contact at the other institution, but not always. One of my former colleagues had an offer withdrawn suddenly because of interference from the dean. I had a similar experience, I applied for an endowed chair and, against my clearly stated wishes, a member of the search committee contacted someone in the dean’s office. Use caution, people in academia can be vicious.

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      It is clear that the univerity does not need to get court approval to take punitive action. On the other hand, victims cannot take punitive action without court approval.

      The university has the position of king while the victim has the position of supplicant.

      Why am I the only one who thinks this is a violation of constitutional rights?

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