Bullying Contrasted With Other Phenomena

Workplace Bullying vs. Schoolyard Bullying

Schoolyard bullying -- the torment of one child by another -- is often compared to workplace bullying. Both types share common underlying principles: the desperate grab for control by an insecure inadequate person, the exercise of power through the humiliation of the Target. School-age bullies, if reinforced by cheering kids, fearful teachers, or ignoring administrators, grow up as dominating type people. If it works for them, there is no reason to change. At work as adults, they do what they do best--bully others. An unknown percentage of workplace bullies have a lifelong record of disrespecting the needs of others. Of course, the cues given off in a super-competitive workplace will draw out the dark side of many others who were not bullies in a prior life, witnesses perhaps, but rarely Targets.

The stakes for workplace bullying are more serious than in the school. Bullying threatens the economic livelihood, not only of the Target but the Target's family as well. When a bully decides to capriciously untrack a Target's career, years of investment in terms of time and money, are at risk. Finally, the most important difference, the one that distinguishes our approach to solutions, is that the child Target must have the help and support of third-party adults to reverse the conflict. Bullied adults have the primary responsibility for righting the wrong, for engineering a solution. When others intervene on their behalf -- as when a more aggressive, well-intentioned spouse takes over finding the solution -- the Target suffers additional consequences from giving away their independence.

Workplace Bullying vs. Rudeness & Incivility

Incivilities and rudeness rarely trigger stress in the people who experience them. Toe picking, knuckle cracking, belching, and nostril reaming are all offensive and undignified. However, they reflect only on the socialization of the picker, cracker, belcher, and reamer. It's not bullying until the bully does something to the Target. If the bully picks the Target's toes (against her wishes) or picks her nose (without permission) and this offensive behavior hurts her emotionally, it could be bullying. Inadvertent social mistakes, not expressly done to affect another person, may be cute to talk about, but they do not qualify as bullying according to our criteria.

Chris Pearson, Ph.D. is an "incivilities" researcher. Her survey of workers who admitted they were the targets of rudeness or disrespect revealed that 12% felt compelled to leave their jobs. Whereas, WBI research of bullied Targets found that 66% (according to our 2010 national survey) had to lose or give up their jobs to make the bullying stop.

Bullying vs. Physical Workplace Violence

Workplace violence certainly grabs headlines. In 2000, the Califano Report, commissioned by Postal Service management, concluded that the national (U.S.) risk of being killed at work is only 1 in 130,000. Zero-tolerance violence policies enable a manager to provoke a worker over the course of several years and to terminate her immediately if she dares to react emotionally with a verbal threat, using the anti-violence policy as weapon.

One federal worker, a mother with kids in child care, was dragged away unceremoniously from work in handcuffs when she innocently commented that since her workplace was hell (and she had her bully to blame for that) she could sympathize with postal workers who had become violent because no one listened to them either. She not only lost her job, she was prohibited to contact her children while she wrangled with law enforcement that night.

Bullying is sub-lethal (non-homicidal) and non-physical violence.

Bullies routinely practice psychological violence against targets. They rarely have to resort to physical violence to satisfy their control needs.

Do bullied targets pose a violence risk to others? In the rarest of circumstances, a target, after years of mistreatment at the hands of tyrant and inaction by the employer, saw no alternative and this led to violence against others at work. After an episode of someone "going postal" if the shooter (it is always a gun or guns in the U.S.) selects certain people, then we are reasonably sure that those victims had previously frustrated the person by ignoring or denying repeated complaints about mistreatment at work.

The documentary, Murder By Proxy: How America Went Postal, was released in Sept. 2011. Experts participating in the film include criminologist Alan Fox, Northeastern University and forensic psychiatrist Michael Weiner. Both state in the film that most murder sprees have some basis in long-term persecution (or perceived persecution) of (by) the future shooter who believed there was no other way to get "justice."

It is more likely that Targets direct the violence inward and commit suicide. Given the role shame and humiliation play in their lives, Targets have great difficulty getting out of bed, suffering from symptoms of depression. By the time they kill themselves, they have lost their marriages, their homes, their children, and all hope of surviving economically. It was bullying that probably drove them out of the job and started the decline in the quality of their lives in the first place. Unfortunately, the link between the suicide and the cruel mistreatment and subsequent loss of the job is not readily apparent.

The most important difference between workplace violence and bullying is that the latter is a daily occurrence for many people.


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