When Schoolyard Bully Becomes Workplace Bully
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to that eighth grade bully who used to make your life miserable on the school playground, wonder no more. He/she is all grown up and perpetuating the legacy of a bully at companies across the United States. This insecure, unskilled individual is poisoning the work environment, wreaking low morale, fear, anxiety and depression on subordinates and coworkers.
Employers are beginning to realize that bullying in the workplace is just as destructive to the employment environment and their company’s productivity as sexual harassment and substance abuse. The employer pays for the bully’s tactics, through lost productivity, absenteeism, high staff turnover, and, in extreme cases, severance packages and lawsuits.
Bullying is fundamentally a form of workplace violence. It is “general” harassment. As such, it may not be prohibited by law per se, absent a workplace bullying statute or conduct that is directed toward a person of a protected class. Nonetheless, it is equally as prevalent and destructive as sex, national origin or racial harassment.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is “repeated mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators (the bullies) that takes any of the following forms:
• Physical abuse
• Offensive conduct/behaviors which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
• Work interference or sabotage, which prevents work from getting done
• Some combination of the above
It is not incivility or simple rudeness, nor the routine exercise of acceptable managerial prerogatives. When abuse becomes routine, the work environment is toxic. Quality work and employee engagement are impossible.” 1
While bullying can take many forms, it most frequently includes the following tactics:
• Spreading false, malicious rumors, gossip or innuendo about an employee
• Excluding or isolating an employee
• Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work
• Physical abuse or threatening abuse
• Removing areas of responsibility without cause, or assigning unreasonable duties or workload
• Constantly changing work expectations
• Establishing impossible deadlines that set a person up to fail
• Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving wrong information
• Harshly criticizing an employee, especially in front of co-workers
• Belittling an employee’s opinions, ideas, suggestions and work
• Tampering with an employee’s personal belongings or work equipment
• Giving an employee the “silent treatment”
• Yelling, screaming and using profanity
• Falsely accusing an employee of errors
• Staring, glaring and directing other nonverbally intimidating body language to an employee
• Encouraging coworkers to turn against the target
Studies have shown that more 75 percent of workplace bullies occupy the position of supervisor or boss to the target employee. One study estimates that at least one in five American workers has experienced some form of destructive bullying in the past year. The bully is equally likely to be a man or a woman.
The gender of the bully often determines which tactics will be used to intimidate the target. Male bullies are more likely to engage in public yelling, sabotage, post-complaint retaliation, threats and name calling, while female bullies are more likely to utilize silent treatment, social ostracism, and encouraging coworkers to turn against the target as their primary tactics. What type of bullying tactic is used also will vary depending on whether the target is male or female.
Female targets are more likely to have their work contributions belittled, be denied training or time to succeed in a new job or be denied access to equipment and resources needed to succeed in their employment. Male targets are more likely to be tormented because they have a disability or to be threatened with physical harm.
Since bullying has a negative impact on the work environment and productivity, employers need to adopt policies and procedures for minimizing workplace violence and bullying. The following are some tips for these types of behavior problems:
1. Adopt a workplace violence/bullying policy in your employee handbook and define bullying as unacceptable behavior.
2. Develop a cooperative employee/union/management workplace violence prevention program to ensure that it is accepted throughout your company’s organization.
3. In establishing a workplace bullying/violence policy or prevention program, provide clear examples of unacceptable behavior, your company’s view toward workplace bullying, and its commitment to the prevention of it. State the consequences for engaging in bullying, and outline a process for employees to report all incidents of bullying and other forms of workplace violence to management.
4. Establish a confidential system for investigating and dealing with workplace bullying. Investigate complaints promptly and take appropriate corrective action.
5. Train managers, supervisors and workers as to the existence of your policy, the definition of workplace violence and bullying, and the commitment of your company to prohibit them from occurring in the workplace.
6. Routinely monitor and watch for signs of bullying and other forms of workplace violence. Provide follow-up and support services to targets.
7. Attempt to work out solutions to conflict before a situation gets serious or out of control. Consider the adoption of an employee assistance plan to deal with cases of aggressive behavior and anger management. Alternatively, retain the services of a facilitator or mediator who is trained in resolving conflict.
8. Periodically conduct surveys or employee meetings to ensure that the employment environment is free from bullying.
In the end, a company that encourages mutual respect on the part of all employees and promotes supervision that is objective and constructive will assist employees to do the best job possible.
Karen Bush-Schneider is a shareholder with White, Schneider, Young & Chiodini, PC, a law firm specializing in employment and benefits law.
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