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Bullies in the workplace - Intimidation doesn't end with high school graduation

  • Bullies in the workplace - Intimidation doesn't end with high school graduation
    Copyright 2012
Published August 04. 2012 09:01AM

It can be as subtle as not being invited to join co-workers at lunch to as obvious as being routinely singled out and publicly berated. It can cause high blood pressure and a lowered immune system.

Bullying doesn't stop with high school graduation: Organizations that track intimidation are reporting increasing instances of bullying in the workplace.

According to a 2010 survey written by the Workplace Bullying Institute and performed by Zogby International, "35 percent of the U.S. workforce an estimated 53.5 million Americans reported being bullied at work; an additional 15 percent witness it. Half of all Americans have directly experienced it. Simultaneously, 50 percent report neither experiencing nor witnessing bullying. Hence, a 'silent epidemic'."

"In the very individualistic American society, people are loathe to admit they were bullied as adults," says Dr. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Author Judith Munson is working to get the subject out in the open.

"There is more public awareness being brought out through the help of workplace bullying advocates and people, such as myself, who are willing and available to educate and bring awareness through trainings and seminars," says Munson, author of "Alligators In The Water Cooler: A Guide To Identifying Bullies And Their Buddies In The Workplace."

"More and more people are being bullied, verbally abused, and intimidated, even to the point of physical violence," she says. "Without laws against bullying, a target doesn't have much of a recourse. Even with policies and procedures in place, if they are not clearly spelled out, and enforced, there is no place for a person to go except to quit their job."

The increase in bullying in the workplace can be attributed to any number of reasons.

Muhamad Aly Rifai, MD, CPE, Chairman, Department of Psychiatry, Blue Mountain Health System, and Clinical Professor Psychiatry and Medicine, The Commonwealth Medical College, believes our society's high-pressure environment contributes to the problem.

"I think the modern work environment, with increasing demands, increasing stress, the actual type of work working with computers, and the focus on productivity leads to varying degrees of bullying in the work environment," he said. "Bullying has been there in all ages, but more recently, financial pressures and increased demands for productivity have led to the intensification of the bullying behavior."

Why me? Who gets bullied?

Among children, bullies often target a child who is "different," either by way of a physical disability, or one who is shy, an outcast or perceived as weak.

But workplace bullies are motivated by insecurity, Namie contends.

"Unlike schoolyard bullying, you were not targeted because you were a 'loner' without friends to stand up to the bullying gang. Nor are you a weakling. Most likely, you were targeted (for reasons the instigator may or may not have known) because you posed a 'threat' to him or her. The perception of threat is entirely in his/her mind, but it is what he/she feels and believes," Namie says.

The Workforce Bullying Institute cites its 2000 survey and conversations with thousands of bullying "targets" in its contention that workplace bullies often target co-workers whom they perceive to be threats.

"Targets are more technically skilled than their bullies. They are the 'go-to' veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and co-workers can't stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses steal credit from skilled targets," Namie says.

Who bullies?

Workplace bullies do not share any single set characteristics, Rifai says.

"I think they show a range of behaviors and characteristics. But the hallmark is that they have issues with emotional maturity, and difficulty forming attachments. Characteristics vary wildly among those (bullies) who seek personal attention, those who want to show off, those who deceive and sometimes not tell truth (in order) to put themselves in better light, to those who are constant critics, to those who threaten," he says.

Fighting back

Unlike flagrant violations of company policy, bullying is often hard to prove to one's supervisors. While companies are likely to have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in place, neither adequately addresses bullying.

Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute says policies need to be crafted and enforced.

He says that "new policies are springing up called 'Respect', 'Respectful Workplace', and 'Civility.' The names indirectly address workplace bullying. However, they may be useful if specific protections against abusive conduct are included, regardless of the title that diminishes the problem.

"Policies without enforcement and accountability for all abusers are insufficient," Namie says. "When special people (for example, high-ranking bullies) are allowed to bully with impunity from punishment, the policy is not worth the paper it's printed on."

The Workplace Bullying Institute supports the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. The legislation has been introduced in a number of states, but not in Pennsylvania.

The sly nature of some workplace bullying makes it hard to resolve.

"Bullying is often more subtle, and may include behaviors that do not appear obvious to others," said Dr. M. Sandy Hershcovis in a 2008 press release from the American Psychological Association. "For instance, how does an employee report to their boss that they have been excluded from lunch? Or that they are being ignored by a coworker? The insidious nature of these behaviors makes them difficult to deal with and sanction."

Hershcovis, PhD, of the University of Manitoba, is the lead author of 'Comparing the Outcomes of Sexual Harassment and Workplace Aggression: A Meta-Analysis."

Rifai says that "people have to first identify that they are in a bullying situation. Sometimes, others have to come to their rescue and say, 'this is a bullying behavior and you need to speak up'."

Sometimes it's hard for a bullying target to identify and define the uncomfortable situation.

People being bullied "get emotionally upset, their work declines, they may retreat from the workplace," he says.

Rifai believes that employers should establish a policy of being bullying-free, and making sure employees are aware of that policy. The employer must "make sure employees know what they have to do to stop the behavior reporting it and standing up for themselves. If the bully is a supervisor, that means the employee may have to go higher, to that person's supervisors.

"People need to speak up for themselves in terms of stopping bullying," he says.

Munson advises targets to control what they can.

"First, be clear that a bully will never change so trying to change them doesn't work. You are the one who needs to change," she says.

She suggests several ways to building assertiveness skills.

"Pretend you are confident. Body language speaks volumes so stand up straight, and move with confidence. Do this even if you don't feel it. The more you stand up straight and walk with confidence, the more you'll believe it and believe it," she says.

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