Workplace Bullying: It’s Real, and It’s Impact Can Be Felt
Both a Career Builder Survey and a Harvard Business Review Survey have found that workplace bulying is on the rise in America, the HBR survey citing tangible impacts to business’ bottom lines due to bullying.
A VitalSmarts report released earlier this week found that 96% of their respondents – out of 2,283 people – experienced workplace bullying. Psychology Today refers to the increase as ‘silent epidemic’. Late last year California Governor Jerry Brown signed HB2053, or the Happy Workplace Bill, into law, making “specified employment practices unlawful, including the harassment of an employee directly by the employer or indirectly by agents of the employer with the employer’s knowledge” and requiring employers enact minimum standards to ensure a workplace free of bullying.
Here’s what Jana Kasperkevic at The Guardian has to say about workplace bullying:
Those studies and surveys, when taken together, cast light on the surprising dynamics of bullying – the belittling, reputational attacks, gossip and elbowing that make many modern workplaces unbearable.
Here’s what the studies show: bullying is not random. It has reasons in the bully’s mind, even if those reasons are unfair, skewed, and informed by their personal insecurities. That bodes well for handling bullies, in the workplace or elsewhere, because it means you can address the root causes – and it’s absolutely essential to stand up for yourself, because bullies tend to prey on those they perceive as weak, and they have lasting power in the office. They tend to drive better workers away to remain the last man (or woman) standing, and they tend to turn on not just one person, but several at a time.
“We were astonished that in so many cases the person most likely to remain in his or her job was the bully,” said Joseph Grenny, co-author of the study and the book Crucial Conversations.
The scope of bullying is larger than most people realize. According to a 2012 CareerBuilder study, bullying included being falsely accused of mistakes, being subjected to the silent treatment, being the subject of unfair gossip or assaults on your reputation, having professional performance belittled or diminished in front of peers, and having someone steal credit for your work. VitalSmarts found that bullying included sabotaging others’ work or reputation, browbeating and threats, or even physical intimidation.
Not surprisingly, given the extent of that list, bullying happens to nearly everyone.
Yet bosses are not the only ones guilty of bullying. Workplace bullies come in different shapes and sizes: a boss who can be mean for no reason, a co-worker who steals our spotlight, a co-worker who takes credit for our work, a client that knows no boundaries. While 48% of 3,800 workers nationwide were bullied by their superiors, 45% said their bullies were coworkers and 31% admitted to being bullied by customers, according to CareerBuilder.
Simply put, a workplace bully is someone at work who makes getting up on Mondays harder than it needs to be.
The problem lies within the companies that permit bullies to thrive within their culture, says Sharon Parella, a partner at the financial services group of Morrison & Foerster’s New York office, who has been outspoken on the issue.
“The companies are saying: ‘Leave us alone. Don’t regulate us. Let us police ourselves.’ But they aren’t policing themselves. They need to train their employees,” she says.
Only 51% of respondents said their company had a policy for dealing with bullies, found the VitalSmarts report. What’s even worse, just 7% know of someone who used that policy and 6% say that it didn’t work to stop the bully.
Grenny and his co-author, David Maxfield, suggest several techniques for dealing with bullies, including speaking up right away, sticking to detailed facts when talking about bullying, finding out what kind of legitimate concern the bully has, warning the bully of the consequences of their behavior, and holding boundaries.
Instead of punishing the bullies, many workplaces reward them. A research paper in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that bullies tend to be very good at office politics – or at least, kissing up to the boss and using gossip through office social networks to attack those they consider rivals.
While victims are usually targeted due to their social incompetence, on some occasions bullies can possess high levels of social ability. Due to their social competence, they are able to strategically abuse coworkers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor.
Perhaps due to their elaborate strategies for sucking up while kicking others, bullies tend to last. More than half of workplace bullies, 54%, have been at it for more than five years, with no consequences. Some bullies have been with their company for as long as 30 years.
As for the excuses used by the bullies themselves that their victims are not as good workers: it’s usually not the case. “There is never a good reason to bully,” says Parella. “Bullying is not the same as disciplining. Bullying might mean different things to different people, but it’s behavior that is severe and pervasive. It’s conduct that makes people uncomfortable.”
Any of these acts listed above can and do pollute workplace environment, which in turn can lead to higher turn over rate. About 17% of those voluntarily leaving their job did so because of management and their work environment, Gallup found in 2008. About a third, at 32%, cited career advancement and promotion opportunities as their reason.
Having a bully for a boss is probably no career booster. After all, a boss who frequently belittles you is not likely to help you advance.
“There can be a very thin line between a bully and a leader,” warns Whitney Johnson in a blogpost on Harvard Business Review, Bullying is a Confidence Game. “[R]ather than doing what a leader does, which is to build on our strengths and compensate for our weakness for a greater purpose, the bully exploits our weaknesses and uses our strength for their own gain.”
With the knowledge that bullying is a major problem that both undercuts the success of the employee, and of the business, what can be done? Workplacebullying.org recommends these three steps:
Step One – Name it! Legitimize Yourself!
Choose a name — bullying, psychological harassment, psychological violence, emotional abuse — to offset the effect of being told that because your problem is not illegal, you cannot possibly have a problem. This makes people feel illegitimate. The cycle of self-blame and anxiety begins.
The source of the problem is external. The bully decides how to target and how, when, and where to harm people. You did not invite, nor want, the systematic campaign of psychological assaults and interference with your work. Think about it. No sane person wakes up each day hoping to be humiliated or berated at work.
There is tremendous healing power in naming. Hard to believe at first, but very true.
Step Two – Take Time Off to Heal & Launch a Counterattack
Accomplish five (5) important tasks while on sick leave or short-term disability (granted by your physician).
Check your mental health with a professional (not the employer’s EAP). Get emotionally stable enough to make a clear-headed decision to stay and fight, or to leave for your health’s sake. Your humanity makes you vulnerable; it is not a weakness, but a sign of superiority. Work Trauma, by definition, is an overwhelming, extraordinary experience.
Check your physical health. Stress-related diseases rarely carry obvious warning signals (e.g., hypertension – the silent killer). Read the current research on work stress and heart disease.
Research state and federal legal options (in a quarter of bullying cases, discrimination plays a role). Talk to an attorney. Maybe a demand letter can be written. Look for internal policies (harassment, violence, respect) for violations to report (fully expecting retaliation).
Make the bottom-line business case for stopping the bully. See our detailed Estimating Costs of Bullying Worksheet.
Start job search for next position.
Step Three – Expose the Bully
The real risk was sustained when you were first targeted (Targets lose their job – involuntarily or by choice for their health’s sake – in 77.7% of cases). It is no riskier to attempt to dislodge the bully. Retaliation is a certainty. Have your escape route planned in advance. Remember, good employers purge bullies, most promote them.
Make the business case that the bully is “too expensive to keep.” Present the data gathered (in Step 2) to let the highest level person you can reach (not HR) know about the bully’s impact on the organization. Obviously in family-owned, or small businesses, this is impossible (so leave once targeted).
Stick to the bottom line. If you drift into tales about the emotional impact of the bully’s harassment, you will be discounted and discredited.
Give the employer one chance. If they side with the bully because of personal friendship (“he’s a great conversationalist and a lunch buddy”) or rationalize the mistreatment (“you have to understand that that is just how she is”), you will have to leave the job for your health’s sake. However, some employers are looking for reasons to purge their very difficult bully. You are the internal consultant with the necessary information. Help good employers purge.
The nature of your departure — either bringing sunshine to the dark side or leaving shrouded in silent shame — determines how long it takes you to rebound and get that next job, to function fully and to restore compromised health. Tell everyone about the petty tyrant for your health’s sake. You have nothing to be ashamed about. You were only doing the job you once loved.
Have an experience with workplace bullying or an idea or comment with regards to how to solve the problem? Tell us about it in the comments.