Workplace Bullying – A Silent Epidemic

Workplace Bullying has been a silent epidemic, but this is rapidly changing as more and more victims come forward.

workplace bullying
Workplace bullying – a silent epidemic.

Dr.’s Gary and Ruth Namie, President and CEO respectively of the Campaign against Workplace Bullying, define bullying at work as the malicious verbal mistreatment of a target by a harassing bully that is driven by the bully’s desire to control the target. Tim Field, author of the workplace harassment book titled Bully In Sight defines bullying as the continual and relentless attack on other people’s self-confidence and self-esteem. However workplace bullying is defined, it does not always include yelling and screaming or fists of rage as some might think. In fact, the majority of occurrences of bullying in the workplace involve more silent but none-the-less harmful actions. When one thinks of bullying in the workplace, the imagination tends to turn to slave driver male bosses belittling subordinates over serving the wrong coffee sweetener as portrayed in the 1995 workplace bullying classic movie “Swimming with Sharks.” Although this memorable scene depicts a more straight forward case of workplace bullying actions, workplace bullying of the 21st century tends to take place in a much different setting.

Bullying does not always take the form of physical, racial, or sexual harassment. This is why the target usually has no legal recourse. According to a 1999 survey in the American Journal of Public Health, “generalized workplace abuse” was four times more prevalent than sexual harassment. Bullying typically takes the form of cruel acts or deliberate forms of humiliation. Hostile work environments are also a form of bullying. Some circumstances that might encourage workplace bullying include poor supervision, lack of training, lack of or ineffective job descriptions, inappropriate and/or inadequate communication, or just overall absence of resources to do ones job effectively. According to workplacetrauma.org, changes such as organizational restructuring, or looming retrenchments and mergers have the ability to spark workplace wars in a normally peaceful environment.

The Namies state that it is not the manner with which the harassment is carried out that is the most defining characteristic of workplace bullying, but rather that the bully’s actions damage the target’s health, self-esteem, relations with family and friends, and/or economic livelihood. Generally, the trauma of workplace bullying leaves the target feeling powerless, confused, disoriented, helpless, and paralyzed. In certain instances, the target continues to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) even years after the bullying occurs. According to the 2007 WBI-Zogby survey, 45% of targeted individuals suffer stress-related health problems. Of those individuals, 80% suffer from debilitating anxiety, 39% suffer from clinical depression, and in addition 30% of women and 21% of men suffer from PTSD. In rare cases, bullying has led to deaths from heart attacks and suicide.

Workplace bullying more often than not involves women as both targets and perpetrators. Although women acting as targets is probably not news to most, the majority of current day bullies are women as well. In fact according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, of the approximate 55 million American workers who claim to have been bullied to date, 71% of reported cases involve bullying of women by other women. Women are also more likely to enlist the help of others to gang up on their targets. Not only do targets have to worry about their relationship with bullies, but also their relationships with other coworkers can become tarnished as well. Workplace mobbing, a phenomenon widely studied in Europe, occurs when coworkers, subordinates or superiors gang up on an employee with the intent to force the employee out of the workplace through rumor, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, discreditation, or isolation.

Workplace bullies or perpetrators are not all sociopaths. Normal well-adjusted members of society can also fall prey to destructive bullying tactics when their positions or authority are questioned. However when bullies’ histories are researched, most likely you will not find that certain incidences stand alone. Most bullies will have a long and storied past when it comes to manipulative and destructive behavior. Although some bullies are just opportunistic and choose easy to conquer victims, today’s bullies often bully to accomplish a goal such as needing a scapegoat to limit their own shortcomings and wrongdoings.

On the other hand, targets are a diverse group of normal talented people. Victims are often selected because of their abilities and the perceived threat they pose to the bullies’ career ambitions. Despite what some executives might think, targets are not “sue crazy.” In fact according to the Zogby International 2007 survey, only 3% of bullied targets file lawsuits, and 40% never even complain. Falling prey to the destructive tactics of bullies creates a one-sided battlefield. Bullies often adopt secrecy and surprise to gain leverage over unsuspecting targets; therefore bullying is not about gamesmanship or fair competition among equals. Most people believe that if they work hard and keep their nose to the grindstone that they will not be affected by workplace bullying. However, since bullies don’t limit their actions to non-performers anyone can fall prey to or become a scapegoat for a bully.

You might wonder why, today, with more workplace laws existing than ever before that this behavior is allowed to exist.

The authors of Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace list three reasons.

  • One reason is that mobbing behaviors are ignored, tolerated, misunderstood, or instigated by the company as a deliberate strategy.
  • The second reason is that this behavior has not yet been identified as workplace harassment, so many victims don’t realize that something unethical is happening to them.
  • Thirdly, in most cases, the targets become so worn down, exhausted, and destroyed that they no longer feel capable of defending themselves, much less powerful enough to initiate legal action.

This explains why more than three-fourths of targets choose to leave the battlefield of workplace abuse and start fresh someplace new.

So what can you do if you do decide to fight back? The Workplace Bullying Institute lists three suggestions.

  • First, give a name to what you are experiencing. This has been shown to legitimize victim’s pain and suffering and make them realize that they are not alone in their fight.
  • Secondly, take time off to “bully-proof” yourself. This entails checking your physical and mental health to make sure that fighting back is in your best interest. This step also includes researching your legal options and gathering data concerning the economic impact your bully has imposed on your organization. The institute suggests beginning a new job search in this second step as well.
  • Your last step should be to expose the bully. This can be accomplished by making a business case to management that this bully is too expensive for the organization to keep.

Give the employer the opportunity to make amends with you. However, it is best to already have an exit strategy in case your employer sides with the bully.

Although in theory, conquering this type of harassment and defeating the evil tyrant is an ending every target dreams of, the hard reality is that fighting back against workplace bullying can be just as detrimental to the victim as enduring it. Disadvantages to fighting back include costs to your health, economic losses, and the toll a vicious defensive employer can impose. So what steps can be taken to safeguard yourself from falling victim to workplace bullying? First realize that workplace bullying can happen to you – no one is invincible. Secondly, don’t let your career or position define your self-worth. Realize that you are more than the job or professional title that you hold and that there are many organizations in this country that are run by outstanding leaders that would never tolerate this form of harassment.

Lastly, get involved as a volunteer citizen lobbyist to assist with anti-bullying legislation in your state by joining the Workplace Bullying Institute’s Legislative Campaign at http://www.workplacebullyinglaw.org

Kasi McLaughlin, PHR, HR Manager, Nueterra HR Solutions
 http://www.nueterrahr.com
Article Source: Kasi McLaughlin

5 thoughts on “Workplace Bullying – A Silent Epidemic”

  1. I too have been a victim of bullying. It went as far as my supervisor telling our HR department that I was suicidal. I was suffering from thyroid issues and it took nearly a year for the medication to calm things down. It was tough for over 5 years but I stuck it out. I have kept documentation since the bullying started and have gone to HR more than once. I came to the realization that they were not going to help me. So I prayed for changes and strength for myself. I will be 50 next month and I’ve reached the point that if I was that bad of an employee I would have been let go. Things are so much better now but it was hard mentally and physically to get to this point.

    1. I feel for you. I suffered severe mental and physical effects from my bullying and mobbing, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, OCD, and migraines. I too kept documentation about the bullying but it was all on my work computer and the day I ‘broke’ the documentation was the last thing I was thinking about. I left without it and never went back. Although I asked for my documentation in my personal folder to be returned to me, it was conveniently ‘lost’. I would suggest emailing all documentation to your home email on a regular basis so you have it in a crisis when you need it. In my case, my attempts to go through HR were a miserable failure, the worst being the time I was told by MY UNION REP (after a meeting with HR and without me in attendance) that if I didn’t see things management’s and HR’s way, then I needed to seek psychological help. I swear I forgot to breathe, I was in such disbelief at what I just heard and so offended.

      1. Actually I do forward any updates that I make on my documentations to my home email. It is sad that so many of us have to suffer through this situation with no help or assistance from our HR departments.

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