December 13th, 2017
US News: Battling Bullying
Battling Bullying in the Workplace
By Rebecca Koenig, U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 13, 2017
It’s Monday morning and you’re filled with dread. You have to present research at the office this afternoon, but the gnawing feeling in your stomach isn’t just performance anxiety. Whenever you speak in front of your team, your boss interrupts to mock what you say. He questions your judgment, calls you an “idiot” and even mimics your voice in an unflattering way. Worse, a few of your co-workers have started to follow his lead, criticizing your work behind your back, and, increasingly, to your face.
You know your contributions are excellent – at least, you used to know. Lately, you haven’t been so sure.
Welcome to the world of workplace bullying. That’s right, the same sort of name-calling, intimidation and ostracism some children experience on the playground can take root among adults in their offices. When constructive criticism crosses a line, or a co-worker undermines your efforts, or your boss starts spreading rumors about your personal life, those are all examples of workplace bullying.
The effects of this abusive behavior can be serious: decreased self-esteem, worsened health and career deterioration. Read on to learn more about the phenomenon and how to combat it.
Understanding the Workplace Bullying Definition
Office bullying is defined as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment” that involves verbal abuse, work sabotage and/or humiliation and intimidation, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, a research and advocacy organization.
It may occur one-on-one (between two co-workers or a supervisor and subordinate) or in a group setting. The latter, in which multiple people gang up on one person, is known as “mobbing.”
Typically, a bully is “an aggressive person who strikes out at a particular person more than once over the course of months,” says Nathan Bowling, a psychology professor at Wright State University.
Workplace Bullying Statistics
One-fifth of American adults have directly experienced abusive conduct at work, according to a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey of more than 1,000 people.
More than two-thirds of office bullies are men, and both men and women bullies target women at higher rates. Hispanics report higher levels of bullying than members of any other race.
It’s not uncommon to have a bully boss: 61 percent of targets reported bullying from people in more senior positions.
Signs of Bullying
Workplace bullying behavior is more serious and enduring than the mere incivility of an occasional rude remark from a co-worker. Types of bullying include:
Ostracism or isolation
Withholding resources or information
Reputation damage due to rumors
Unfairly negative evaluation of work
Office sexual harassment is considered a subset of workplace bullying, says David Yamada, professor of law and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School.
Many targets experience negative career and health consequences from workplace bullying, sometimes without even realizing the cause. They may fail to earn raises and promotions or lose their relationships with co-workers for reasons they don’t understand. The may experience worsened health, either through physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure, nausea or frequent illness, or mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression or dread related to work.
Why Bullying Happens
Some personality traits are linked to aggressive behavior. People who are emotionally unstable, easily angered or irritated, unconscientious about following rules or uncaring about others’ feelings are more likely to become bullies, Bowling says.
Although they are not at fault, targets of bullying may share some traits, too. There are different schools of thought about what makes someone a target. They tend to be ethical and honest, technically competent in a way that makes bullies feel threatened and lacking in political intelligence, says Gary Namie, psychologist and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute. They may look like easy targets unlikely to resist abuse or may have habits or personality traits that bullies find provocative, Bowling says.
Corporate culture and working conditions play a large role in stimulating office abuse and enabling bullies, Namie says. Some companies explicitly reward aggressive behavior by promoting people who bully others. Others indirectly perpetuate abuse by encouraging cutthroat competition or by neglecting to take bullying complaints seriously.
Although bullying can happen in any office, it’s common in the health care, education and public service sectors, where high-ranked individuals interact frequently with colleagues who have lower statuses, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. Stressful fields like behavioral corrections, sales and hospitality and food service also have the conditions that foster bullying.
Poor management can also permit abuse. It may stem from a chaotic situation, like a corporate merger, bosses who are disengaged with office activity or insufficient leadership training for supervisors.
“If you don’t know how to manage, you’ll resort to cruelty,” Namie explains.
When employees feel they are vying with each other for limited resources, they may adopt aggressive behavior, Bowling says. That may happen when a company is facing financial pressure or when members of a particular group, like women or racial minorities, feel they are competing for limited career opportunities, research suggests.
Bullying can also result from an interpersonal workplace disagreement that escalates into a bigger conflict.
Workplace Bullying Laws
Unlike in Europe, workplace harassment laws are few and far between in the U.S., which means targets of workplace bullying have little legal recourse.
“It’s a pretty sparse set of legal protections,” Yamada says. “Generic bullying at work is largely legal in the American workplace right now.”
There are two exceptions. If bullying starts as retaliation against an employee who reported ethical concerns about company practices, the target may be protected under whistleblower statutes. And if bullying stems from discrimination based on race, gender or other personal characteristics protected by civil rights law, targets may be able to file a claim that they were forced to labor in a “hostile work environment.” Sexual harassment suits often fall under this category.
Yamada and Namie have drafted legislation to ban “abusive” work environments, and although several state legislatures have considered it, none have passed it in full.
How to Stop Workplace Bullies
Targets have a few options for how to deal with bullies at work, but the first step is to acknowledge bullying behavior for what it is: abuse.
“First you have to recognize it and make the connection between the behavior you see at work from others and your own visceral emotional reactions to it,” Namie says. He recommends talking about the bullying with a doctor or counselor for emotional support. Consider taking a leave of absence to restore your health and plan your course of action.
Sometimes, simply confronting the bully may be enough to stop the behavior. After rehearsing by yourself or with a friend, it can be effective to respond to verbal abuse with a firm, calm rejection, suggests Paul Baard, professor of organizational psychology at Fordham University: “I don’t want to be spoken to that way. Knock it off.”
If that doesn’t work and you want to report the bullying, it helps to build alliances first, Namie says. Talk to co-workers to find out whether the bully has targeted any of them. They may be reluctant or fearful to talk but will hopefully share their stories if you ask point-blank.
It also helps to formalize and document your communication with the bully, suggests Preston Ni, professor and author of “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People.” Whenever you can, carry out conversations in writing. If you must meet in person, have a third party present to serve as a witness to the conversation. Write down the date, times and circumstances of any abuse that occurs.
Where should you lodge your complaint? Human resources departments are first and foremost loyal to the employer, so they may not be the best place to take workplace bullying grievances, Yamada says, especially if the bully has a lot of power within the organization or performs at a high level. The department may chalk bullying up to “personality differences” rather than “an abuse of power.”
“If no one takes the problem seriously, going to human resources could potentially backfire,” Bowling says.
That means targets may be better off reporting abuse to a senior manager who is not an ally of the bully. Namie recommends pitching the conversation as a business case argument. Calculate the cost of the bullying on the company – including employee turnover rate, lowered morale, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and legal fees from threatened lawsuits – and propose a solution: disciplining the bully. Make sure to ask that your job, pay and status remain safe.
When You Can’t Stop the Bully
Unfortunately, not all bullying can be stopped. Some targets find they have no choice but to find employment elsewhere. More than half of respondents said they escaped office bullying by leaving their job, either voluntarily, under pressure or because they were fired, according to the 2017 WBI survey.
Targets of bullying may need to fight their “understandable desire to try to make things work and persevere even in the face of a challenging work situation,” Yamada says. “If it’s reached the point where your self-confidence is being shattered, that’s not a healthy place to be. Sometimes it’s easier to cut your losses and find a better work situation. The exit strategy is sometimes the one that’s the smartest.”
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