It’s likely that you can name a bully in your workplace. According to studies, one in five U.S. workers is affected by bullying in the workplace (Keashly, as cited in Namie & Namie, 2000). Bullying is most common in organizations that lack respect, trust and openness, and where poor communication, gossiping and weak supervision are common (Townend, 2008). In its wake, the devastating effects of workplace bullying are chronic or posttraumatic stress, difficulties concentrating on or accomplishing work objectives, involuntary resignations, family and personal relationship impacts and deteriorating physical and mental health. Bullying in the workplace is so pervasive that 13 states and our national Congress are considering legislation to make it illegal (Martucci & Sinatra, 2009).
A consensus has formed around the definition of bullying as persistent, malicious and unwelcome mistreatment of one employee by another that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests (Namie & Namie, 2000; Martucci & Sinatra, 2009; Bond, Tuckey, & Dollard, 2010). Workplace bullying acts include “threats to an individual’s status as a professional (i.e. public professional humiliation, belittlement); personal attacks (i.e. name-calling, humiliation); isolation (i.e. exclusion from social events, withholding information); work-related harassment (i.e. work-overload; unrealistic deadlines, high job demands, meaningless tasks); and rumor spreading (Zapf, Einarsen, Hoel, & Varieta, 2003; Einarsen & Raknes, 1997; Rayner & Hoel, 1997; and Zapf, Knorz, & Kulla, 1996 as cited in Bond, Tuckey, & Dollard, 2010).
The main cause of bullying is a workplace that encourages extreme competition, lacks rules or inadequate enforcement of rules against bullying and harassment, or inappropriately responds to workplace change or conflict resulting in a dysfunctional need to control others (Baillien, Neyens, De Witte, & De Cuyper, 2009; Cleary, Hunt, Walter, & Robertson, 2009). Namie & Namie (2000) surveyed bullying targets who self-reported that the two top reasons they were bullied were because they either refused to go along with the bully’s attempt to control them, or the bully was envious of the target’s skill, knowledge or ability to work with people. Because targets are often unprepared to respond to a bully’s unrelenting attention, they may suffer in silence, try to hide, stand up for him or herself or report the bully (results are mixed on this stopping a bully) or leave the organization (Namie & Namie, 2000). When the workplace culture, rules or the bully’s own interpersonal skills with management provide him or her protection, the target has little hope for correction.
What can be done?
If you have been targeted by a bully, review these suggestions and do what feels safe. Read a copy of Namie & Namie’s book, The Bully at Work, or go to their website, www.bullybusters.org, for strategies on handling bullies. Second, check your organization’s policy manual for any anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy and procedure that you can follow. Third, enlist the assistance of “guardians” you trust such as human resources staff, union representatives, your company’s Employee Assistance Program and others who might be able to help.
If you hold a leadership position in your own organization, make sure that your organization has policies in place to investigate and address bullying. Hold training for supervisors about workplace bullying (your company’s Employee Assistance Program provider can probably assist you) and consider extending the training to employees once your leadership team is on board. If you live in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont or Washington, investigate the progress of the anti-bullying legislation in your state and what it might mean for your workplace. If you support the initiative, become an advocate in your state and in the nation by sending your legislators a letter or email in support of these initiatives becoming law. Finally, support the targets in your organization so that their bullying experience ends as soon as possible.
Baillien, E., Neyens, I., De Witte, H., & De Cuyper, N. (2009). A qualitative study on the development of workplace bullying: Towards a three way model. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 19, 1-6.
Bond, S., Tuckey, M.R., & Dollard, M.F. (2010, Spring). Psychosocial safety climate, workforce bullying, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress. Organizational Development Journal, 28(1), 37-56.
Cleary, M., Hunt, G.E., Walter, G., & Robertson, M. (2009, December). Dealing with bullying and the workplace: Toward zero tolerance. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 47(12), 34-41.
Namie, G., & Namie, R. (2000). The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job. Napierville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.
Townend, A. (2008, Autumn). How to tackle workplace bullies. Manager: The British Journal of Administrative Management, 64, 26-27.