Workplace bullying has been getting a lot more attention in the media lately after some high-profile bullying cases have come to light — but the issue is unfortunately not a new one. After all, the Workplace Bullying Institute has been around since the early 1990s for a reason, and many states have been in the process of trying to pass legislation against workplace bullying since 2003 (none yet with any success). But for as long as workplace bullying has been happening, it doesn’t appear to be stopping. A just-released CareerBuilder survey among 5,671 U.S. workers reveals that more than one in four (27 percent) workers have felt bullied in the workplace, with the majority neither confronting nor reporting the bully.
The most common bully? The boss.
According to survey results, 14 percent of workers felt bullied by their immediate supervisor, while 11 percent felt bullied by a co-worker. Seven percent said the bully was not their boss but someone else higher up in the organization, while another 7 percent said the bully was their customer.
Bullying reports by gender and age
- Comparing genders and age groups, the segments that were more likely than others to report feeling bullied were women, workers ages 55 or older (29 percent), and workers age 24 or younger (29 percent).
- Women reported a higher incidence of being treated unfairly at the office. One-third (34 percent) of women said they have felt bullied in the workplace, compared to 22 percent of men. Of course, this doesn’t mean fewer men are bullied, necessarily — just that fewer men report it. And, according to research by organizational behavior and leadership expert Denise Salin, women are more likely than men to self-label as a target of bullying.
- Workers ages 35 to 44 were the least likely to report feeling bullied, with only one in four doing so.
Bullying can come in a variety of forms, and what one of us considers crossing the line might make another cringe or blush, and a third person accept as simply “part of the job.” When asked to describe how they were bullied, workers pointed to the following examples:
- My comments were dismissed or not acknowledged (43 percent).
- I was falsely accused of mistakes I didn’t make (40 percent).
- I was harshly criticized (38 percent).
- I was forced into doing work that really wasn’t my job (38 percent).
- Different standards and policies were used for me than other workers (37 percent).
- I was given mean looks (31 percent).
- Others gossiped about me (27 percent).
- My boss yelled at me in front of other co-workers (24 percent).
- Belittling comments were made about my work during meetings (23 percent).
- Someone else stole credit for my work (21 percent).
Since bullying comes in so many forms, it’s often difficult to define bullying by one specific action. The Workplace Bullying Institute, however, defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:
- Verbal abuse.
- Offensive conduct/behaviors that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating.
- Work interference, i.e. sabotage, that prevents work from being done.
Salin describes bullying in the workplace as a “form of negative interaction that can express itself in many ways, ranging from verbal aggression and excessive criticism or monitoring of work to social isolation or silent treatment.” It’s sometimes an accumulation of many minor acts, adding up to a pattern of maltreatment. The person on the receiving end of the bullying feels unable to defend him or herself successfully.
What are companies doing to combat this workplace bullying?
Twenty-eight percent of workers who were bullied brought the situation to a higher authority by reporting the bully to their Human Resources department. While 38 percent of these workers stated that measures were taken to investigate and resolve the situation, the majority of workers (62 percent) said no action was taken.
Of those who didn’t report the bully at all, one in five (21 percent) said it was because they feared the bullying would escalate. And with so few companies taking action on bullying complaints, reporting the incident may be an increasingly unattractive option to employees, because not only will they have to worry about the bullying getting worse, they will also have to fear making the culprit aware that his or her actions will not be disciplined by the company, essentially giving the person a green light to continue the bullying behavior.
Various sources from Salin’s research on workplace bullying also show that bullying seems to be prevalent in organizations that support, accept or allow such behavior, or where employees feel that they can “get away with it” or where it is accepted as part of a “tough” climate.” Even worse, new employees and managers can become socialized into treating bullying as a normal feature of working life.
The cost to your employees – and your business
Bullying is not only harmful for the employees experiencing it, but it also has a significant impact on the workplace environment as a whole. Bullying affects morale, motivation, work performance and productivity, and can also lead to higher absenteeism, health care costs and turnover — not to mention the psychological toll it takes on your employees. Some employers have realized the importance of taking steps to prevent bullying or make employees aware that they have a strict no-tolerance bullying policy, not only for the obvious reason of protecting their valued employees, but also because it’s good for business. Many employers, however, only seem to deal with the issue after it happens — if they deal with it at all.
Does your organization thrive on competition to the point of intimidation? Do you look the other way when an employee’s behavior seems to upset another employee? Or do you cultivate a culture of respect? While organizations can’t necessarily be blamed for bullying behavior, employees can certainly draw conclusions about acceptable or encouraged workplace behavior from the way they observe their organization treat its own employees and handle conflict.
By taking a soft stance on bullying, employees will view your workplace as tolerant of the practice, and will be less likely to come forward for help when they become a victim. What can you do to better protect your employees?
Six steps toward a bully-free workplace
In an article she wrote for the Scandinavian Journal of Management, Salin references many tips that various experts have found to be effective in helping to prevent or lessen the occurrence of workplace bullying.
Consider the following 6 steps:
- Foster a supportive culture, and encourage open communication with both peers and leaders.
- Introduce a specific, zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy to employees to increase general awareness of appropriate work behavior. The content of the document is very important; simply having one is not enough. It should cover the definition of what is regarded as bullying and what is not, as well as a statement of consequences of breaching your organization’s standards. It should also clarify who to report to, list specific contact persons and clearly explain the procedure for making and investigating informal and formal complaints.
- Incorporate staff from all levels of your organization to help develop your policy, and increase awareness and acceptance of it throughout the organization — having a written policy is not enough. Policies are not just for the potential victim of workplace bullying, but are also helpful for managers, to give them advice and guidelines about how to deal with bullying. In turn, having a policy may make managers more willing and competent to react appropriately to a situation.
- Include skills to identify and deal with bullying during management training; any action taken to increase leader competence in dealing with bullying is of utmost importance.
- Spread knowledge of both the definition of workplace bullying and your organization’s policy at all levels, so that situations that could escalate into bullying can be quickly identified (and hopefully dealt with before the level of intensity increases). Increasing awareness may also encourage more employees to feel empowered to combat bullying by refusing to take part or refusing to silently watch it happen.
- Increase the perceived cost to the perpetrator in order to deter potential bullies from taking action by making it clear that there will be serious consequences.
These are some steps your organization may choose to take to help curb bullying in the workplace — but I’d like to hear from all of you. What is your organization’s stance on workplace bullying, and what measures have you taken to prevent it? How have you dealt with bullying situations that have arisen?