Workplace Bullying

Most of us at one time or another have witnessed or have been party to bullying when we were in school.  The classic image of the bigger kid picking on a smaller or younger kid on the playground, in class, or after school appears in novels, movies, and media.  In the last few years, public awareness has increased and opinion has transformed from bullying being “just part of growing up” to being dangerous to self-esteem and well being.  In the last several years, the level of bullying has reached the point where several children in different parts of the US committed suicide to escape the verbal and physical abuse.

Schools have increased their anti-bullying campaigns to raise awareness and diminish the number of incidents occurring during school.  Similarly, as social media and cell phones have proliferated among students, the internet has become the new tool of bullies that want to torment another in front of their peers.  Recent research has found that approximately 25 percent of students of middle school age or lower have been bullied.

Until recently, it was commonly assumed that bullying was a childhood phenomenon.  However, that is changing as more employees come forward to ask for assistance.  Workplace bullying entails individuals or groups using persistent aggressive or unreasonable behavior against a co-worker or subordinate.  It can take verbal or nonverbal as well as psychological or physical form.  The common thread is that it creates humiliation for the recipient.  What makes it tough to address is that much of the bullying occurs within the rules and policies of the organization and takes more than one form.  Researchers have identified the characteristics of bullying as it is:

  • repetitious (occurs on regular basis)
  • enduring (lasts for an extended period of time)
  • escalating (aggression and severity grows over time)
  • power based (victim is in a less powerful position)

Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) is one of the more well-known organizations researching workplace bullying. Their 2007 survey identified that 13 percent of employees are currently being bullied, 24 percent have been bullied in the past, and 49 percent have been bullied or witnessed bullying in the past (http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/).  Their research also found that race and gender combinations experience different levels of bullying with women and African Americans much more likely to be targets.  However, when women are targets, it is much more likely that a woman is bullying another woman (71 percent of the time).

What are some common approaches to bullying? There four typical approaches include:

  • Professional attack – public humiliation, disparaging of ideas, unnecessary use of discipline, or blame
  • Personal attack – insults, attack of integrity, spreading rumors, or comments on personal life
  • Isolation – lack of information, physical isolation, or limiting interaction
  • Overwork – increasing pressure, provide impossible assignments or deadlines, or intentionally creating environment for failure

The most prevalent tactics for bullying according to the WBI 2007 survey include:

  • accusing the employee of errors that were not made (71 percent);
  • showing nonverbal hostility through body language (68 percent);
  • discounting an employee’s thoughts or ideas in a public meeting (64 percent);
  • applying the silent treatment or other non-inclusion tactics (64 percent); and
  • exhibiting mood swings in front of the group (61 percent).

Although it is assumed that supervisors are the only aggressors, research has shown that bad behavior stretches across the major players.  A 2004 study of 516 public and private organizations by National Institute of Occupational Safety Health (NIOSH) found the following:

  • 24.5 percent of the organizations surveyed reported that some degree of bullying had occurred there during the preceding year;
  • In the most recent incident that had occurred, 39.2 percent involved an employee as the aggressor, 24.5 percent involved a customer, and 14.7 percent involved a supervisor; and
  • In the most recent incident, 55.2 percent involved the employee as the “victim,” 10.5 percent the customer, and 7.7 percent the supervisor.

Overall, the study found that employee on employee bullying as being the most prevalent in recent incidents (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/upd-07-28-04.html).

The impact of bullying can be personally and professionally devastating from a physical and psychological standpoint.  Clearly, bullying does not increase productivity, engagement, or morale in the workplace.  Like anything that impacts the individuals of an organization, there is a cost to the organization as well.  The National Institute of Occupational Safety Health (NIOSH) found that mental illness among the workforce leads to a loss in employment amounting to $19 billion and a drop in productivity of $3 billion.

In the next post, we will discuss ways to address bullying in your workplace.

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