HR Management

Workplace Bullying: New Trend or an Old Problem Gaining Attention?

Bad bosses are a necessary evil, as every HR professional knows. (Istockphoto art)

My relationship with one office bully is strained beyond what could be productive. Her emails are attempts to put me in my place. She will frequently email me and copy our boss and ask him what they should do, excluding me. When I interact with her I get a knot in my stomach.”

“With the other office bully, it is so subtle I can’t put my finger on it. It is clear that the two of them operate as a team. They whisper together in front of me and certain words are said in a heightened tone. This happens daily.”

If you have experienced similar behavior at work, you may be a victim of workplace bullying. You’re not alone. As of 2013, the Workplace Bullying Institute reports that “[approximately] 35 percent of the U.S. workforce has reported experiencing workplace bullying at one point or another.”

Bullies often see themselves as the victim

What do bullies do that cause problems in the workplace? They can be bold and aggressive by yelling at you in front of others or they can take a passive-aggressive approach by spreading rumors about you.

Others use very subtle tactics like rolling their eyes when you speak or “forgetting” to invite you to important meetings. According to Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons, by one or more perpetrators in the form of verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behavior and work interference.”

Rakesh Malhotra, founder of Five Global Values, writes that “[most bullies] portray themselves to society as polite and respectful, as they are charming in public, even flattering towards their co-workers.” Gretchen, a bully and member of a high school clique in the movie Mean Girls, tells new student, Cady: “I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me … but I can’t help it that I’m popular.”

Bullies often see themselves as the victim and don’t get or don’t care how they make others feel. Says one bully, “The biggest problem I have at work is that I don’t get respect from others.”

When bullies are allowed to do run amok in the workplace, they can cause emotional and psychological turmoil. Dr. Gary Namie has led a campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill which, if passed, will require employers to implement policies and procedures to prevent workplace bullying.

The fallout from workplace bullying

Says Namie, victims of workplace bullying display a number of problems including “hypertension, auto-immune disorders, depression, anxiety and in the most severe cases, PTSD.” In addition, the victim’s work and career are “disrupted.” Says one victim, “There was a span where I did not go to the satellite office for six months because I did not want to see the bully.”

In a 2012 article, Michelle Castillo from CBS News claims “people who are bullied at work are more likely to be prescribed anti-depressants, sleeping pills and tranquilizers.” One woman who is being bullied at work, says, “I am not as productive. I have nightmares where the two bullies have knives and are laughing and chasing me.” Another victim states, “There is a consistent level of stress that sits underneath every single interaction I have with the bully.”

To gain further insight into workplace bullying, The Lindenberger Group, a New Jersey-based human resources firm, gathered data via a written survey in 2012. Some 121 people participated, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 60s, from companies with fewer than 50 employees in companies with over 5,000 employees, and from industries ranging from Education, Energy, Health Care and Manufacturing to Nonprofit, Retail, Service and Technology.

Startlingly, over 80 percent of respondents stated that they believe that bullying is a serious problem in the workplace but report that fewer than 25 percent of American companies do anything about workplace bullying.

The behaviors most commonly associated with workplace bullying, say respondents, are being sworn at, shouted at, humiliated, unwarranted or invalid criticism and blame without factual justification.

Over 95% of victims experienced stress

One victim reports, “I had to make a deposit at the bank so I left the office and locked the door. The bully could not get in. She reamed me on the phone for 20 minutes and threatened to get me fired. The next day another employee showed her that she had an office key on her key chain. She never apologized. Her response was just ‘Oh, silly me.’”

In our study, over 50 percent of respondents reported that they witnessed or were a victim of bullying at their current workplace, and over 60 percent reported that they witnessed or were a victim of bullying at another company they worked for.

In terms of the effect of bullying on the victim, over 95 percent report that victims experience increased stress and almost 90 percent report that victims experience lower job satisfaction. Other significant effects include health complaints (65.4 percent) and lower productivity (57.9 percent).

Men were reported to be bullies slightly more often than women (55 percent versus 45 percent) but women were reported to be victims most of the time (77.1 percent).

Most victims and most bullies are between the ages of 41 and 50 (30.1 percent/39.2 percent) or 51 to 60 (28.2 percent/29.4 percent) which leads to an interesting question: will Millennials (born between 1977 and 1992) who are reputed to “play well with others” be less prone to bully?

Another interesting finding is that most bullies (77.6 percent) are at a level in the organization above the victim. In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, Andy says about her boss, “She’s not happy unless everyone around her is panicked, nauseous or suicidal.”

Why does bullying occur?

As we suspected, the majority of respondents (78.2 percent) state that no actions were taken to correct the behaviors. However, when actions are taken, coaching was used most often (50 percent) followed by termination (38.9 percent).

We asked respondents why they think that bullying occurs. Most (88.1 percent) think that it is to express dominance or superiority or because of psychological issues that the bully has (78.6 percent) while others see it as career-driven: to weed out competition (60.3 percent) or to get ahead (52.4 percent). One victim states, “Our office bully needs to be less critical, listen and calm her temper down. She needs to stop throwing people under the bus.”

Not surprisingly, 80 percent are in favor of laws being put into place to prevent workplace bullying but many believe that laws have not been passed because of concern by employers about possible lawsuits (63 percent) and a lack of understanding of the differences between bullying and harassment (59.7 percent). Bullying, by the way, can be directed at anyone regardless of their race, religion, nationality, gender, age, disability or color of their skin. Harassment, on the other hand, is treating someone differently because of their race, religion, nationality, etc.

Supervisors must take complaints seriously

Finally, when asked what steps should be taken to prevent workplace bullying, 91.2 percent of respondents think that following through with appropriate disciplinary action for bullies is the best course of action, 88.8 percent are in favor of policies, 86.4 percent want employers to let employees know how to report workplace bullying, and 84.8 percent are in favor of training. Says one executive, “It’s important to take complaints seriously and handle things quickly.”

The course of action for human resource professionals is clear: develop policies, provide training, let employees know how to report instances of workplace bullying and hire external coaches who have experience handling workplace bullying.

The course of action for managers and supervisors is also clear: take complaints seriously and follow through on appropriate disciplinary action for bullies. Finally, leaders must be diligent in setting the right tone, modeling appropriate behaviors and creating a culture to prevent workplace bullying.

And if that doesn’t happen, remember Ralphie from A Christmas Story? His best line in the movie? “Say Uncle. Say it!”

Judy Lindenberger is a certified career coach for CareerMinds and an HR consultant who during her work with Fortune 500 companies, designed and facilitated the first-ever sexual harassment prevention training for federal government workers among other award-winning efforts. She holds an MBA in human resources and is based in New Jersey. Contact her at jlindenberger@careerminds.com.