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Workplace Bullying: pervasive and often ignored

Workplace Bullying: pervasive and often ignored

We all remember the bullies we encountered in school – verbally, and sometimes physically, intimidating, mean spirited, sarcastic, and cruel. We sigh with relief that those days are behind us.

But are they?

It might depend on where you work and for whom and with whom you work..

Unfortunately, workplace bullying is pervasive and not yet adequately addressed.

There are regulations that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, but there are no laws designed to curb bullying, yet the consequences are significant.

Workplace bullying involves any language or actions that embarrass or humiliate an employee. Usually, the bully is in a position of authority and uses his or her “power” over others to intimidate.

In doing research for this article, I asked colleagues if they had examples of workplace bullying and this one is representative:

“I was reporting my review of a patent application to my supervisor. When I started explaining the invention, my supervisor interrupted and asked me to explain several elements in a drawing that I had not started to discuss. I hesitated briefly. My supervisor closed the file and tossed it out his doorway into the hallway. He yelled at me, ‘Don’t come back until you can explain every…thing in the application.’

“This was typical behavior and we were all anxious about meetings with him.”

Many of us have encountered the supervisor who is adept at, as a Boston Globe article put it, “playing the kiss up, kick down game.”

They demean, demoralize, and verbally abuse subordinate staff while keeping their own bosses happy.

This effectively creates a false appearance to senior leaders that all is well, unless a bullying victim has the courage to step forward.

Unfortunately, even when they do, the problem often goes unaddressed and escalates.

A senior official at the nonprofit American Academy of Arts and Sciences bullied her staff for more than 17 years, even though staff reported the problems above her level and many left the organization in a matter of days or weeks after they were hired. No one on the Academy’s board held her accountable for her offensive behavior.

The fact is, that in some organizations there is a culture of workplace bullying, and many of us have experienced it firsthand.

If you’ve worked for an organization that places blame and finds fault instead of focusing on solving problems that occur, you know how destructive that type of culture can be.

Most companies do not purposefully support bullying, but they may develop a problem with it by not taking it seriously.

In these companies, employees who make a case against bullies may find that the bullying only gets worse. As a result, the employee either learns to survive (not thrive) or, more likely, finds employment elsewhere.

The consequences of workplace bullying are far reaching. According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, “Workplace Bullying: What Everyone Needs to Know” study, bullying results in:

• High turnover, which is expensive for companies as they invest in hiring and training new employees only to lose them shortly thereafter, possibly to a competitor;

• Low productivity, since employees are not motivated to do their best and are more often out sick due to stress-related illnesses;

• Lost innovations, since the bully is more interested in attacking his or her victim than advancing the organization, and the victims become less likely to generate or share new ideas;

• Difficulty hiring quality employees as word spreads that the organization has a hostile work environment.

As underscored by Maureen Duffy, family therapist and author of “Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions,” in the U.S. businesses spend, “$250 million annually in expenditures related to health care, litigation, staff turnover, and retraining from workplace bullying and mobbing….This figure may be low, given a lot of these types of costs are not always attributed to bullying when, in fact, they could be.”

What can an organization do to recognize and address workplace bullying?

It is imperative to establish a healthy and positive workplace culture. There should be standards and expectations in place that govern how managers treat employees, and, further, how employees treat one another.

Specifically, encouraging creative problem solving and collaboration among staff; making it acceptable to experiment and fail at times; valuing employees contributions openly and with gratitude; showing flexibility in decision-making; providing staff with flexibility and wellness programs to support a more balanced life; and, finally, holding staff accountable for abusive behavior.

This type of culture consistently produces outstanding results, helps to retain and attract the best talent, and motivates and energizes staff into positive action.

Even if organizations still don’t get it, many “healthy workplace” advocates do.

They have developed legislation to address workplace bullying that is currently pending in 10 states.

As described on the website,, “The Healthy Workplace Bill creates a legal claim for bullying targets who can establish that they were subjected to malicious, health-harming behavior. It also provides defenses for employers who act preventively and responsively with regard to bullying and includes provisions to discourage frivolous claims.”

There may not be a law against workplace bullying just yet, but the trend is tracking in that direction.

Either way, it shouldn’t take a law to get us to treat one another as we would like to be treated ourselves. More organizations need to make the Golden Rule an official workplace policy.

Workplace Bullying by the numbers

1 in 4 Number of people who are victims of workplace bullying
1 in 10 Number of people who are victims of workplace bullying on a regular basis
35 to 50 percent Number of people in the U.S. who have been bullied at work at some point in their career
60 percent Number of bullies who are men
20 percent Number of bullying incidents that cross the line into harassment

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