Workplace Bullying Does Not Have to Shortchange Your Career or Your Well Being

By Caitlin Williams, Ph.D.

Would it surprise you to learn that up to 44 percent of U.S. workers report that they are or have been bullied at work? Even greater numbers of workers have reported witnessing bullying in the workplace. And the US isn’t alone; other countries across the globe report high incidences of bullying. And for most of these countries, reports of bullying are on the rise.

Furthermore, the United Nations-sponsored International Labor Office (ILO) has reported that professions that were once regarded as sheltered from workplace bullying, like teaching and library services, are reporting higher numbers of bullying incidents (Sperry, 2009).

While you’ll find some variations in the definitions of bullying across different reports and organizations, most define bullying as repeated words and/or actions that are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate or undermine an employee (or group of employees). Some sources go further and include the word “mobbing,” usually defined as a group of coworkers who bully a coworker.

No matter how you define it, workplace bullying has immediate and long-term consequences. Workplace bullying damages workers’ morale, endangers their physical and emotional health and can lead to a host of long-term effects including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), lack of self-esteem, financial risk due to increased absenteeism, sleep disorders and an increase in family tension and stress. For many, the dream of excelling in their field and the career aspirations that have inspired them evaporate and are replaced by everyday efforts to survive another day and stay below the  radar so as not to draw any attention to themselves.

And the consequences of unchecked workplace bullying and mobbing go beyond the damage it does to workers. Employers suffer when bullied workers are less productive and miss work. These consequences of bullying impact productivity, the smooth running of teams, the engagement of workers and the overall reputation of the organization in the eyes of consumers, clients, patrons and potential employees.

Many reasons are given for bullying and mobbing behavior, as well as for its increase in numbers. A report by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: What Everyone Needs to Know, lists several factors that contribute to bullying: significant organizational change, inadequate information flow between organizational levels, lack of employee participation in decisions, work systems that lack policies about workplace behavior and certain worker characteristics. 

Below is a list of actions that workers and employers can take to end, and prevent, bullying. 

Actions that workers can take:
If you are experiencing workplace bullying, look over this list of actions you can use to take back some control and find joy again in the work you once loved. If someone you know is the target of abusive behaviors from bullying co-workers or supervisors, share this list with them.

  1. If you are experiencing abusive behavior at work – don’t minimize it. If you are like many other workers who have been on the receiving end of some hurtful or uncomfortable behavior by others, you may wonder if you’re overreacting – or you may be uncertain about what behaviors actually qualify as “bullying.”

    Here are some examples of workplace bullying, pulled from a variety of sources. These examples do not represent a comprehensive list – they’re meant to help you name some of the awkward, embarrassing or threatening words or actions you may have had targeted at you. Instances of workplace bullying can include:

 

    • Being shouted at
    • Unwarranted criticism
    • Blame, without facts to back up anything that has been said
    • Exclusion or social isolation
    • Being humiliated
    • Being sworn at
    • Trivial criticism
    • Sarcasm
    • Belittling your opinions
    • Accusations regarding lack of effort
    • Failure to acknowledge good work
    • Allocation of meaningless tasks
    • Repeated reminders of past mistakes
    • Being given unrealistic work deadlines

 

  1. Do not assume you are to blame. Recognize that the bullying is NOT about you or your performance. Bullies often target talented, likable and capable employees who get along with others and do well in their organization. They do so in their efforts at control and power to intimidate and create fear.

 

  1. Keep a diary that details the incidences of bullying or mobbing. Include dates, times, specifics of the incident and people who were present. This journal may be useful if and when you decide to report the bullying behavior and need to show proof and the pattern of the bullying behavior.

 

  1. Ask your supervisor (or someone in Human Resources) for the name of an independent contact person in HR or in an EAP that you can speak to when you are targeted.

 

  1. Report any bullying incident to your supervisor. If your supervisor is the person doing the bullying, identify the individual that your supervisor reports to and be ready to report the incident to that person and ask for his or her support.

 

  1. If you are reluctant to report the incident, talk with a trusted mentor or with someone you have come to know, admire and trust inside your organization – consider someone who has been working there for some length of time. That person may be able to offer suggestions for handling the situation.

 

  1. You may want to limit your interactions with the bully. Email and voicemail may make this easier. If you do need to interact with the person who is bullying you, do so in a way that you can remain calm and professional. Focus on your own well being and safety.

 

  1. Refuse to be intimidated by the bully – remember: you have done nothing wrong and you have the right to a bully-free environment in which to do your work.

 

  1. Focus on doing your work and doing it well. Don’t get distracted from performing at your best. Sometimes this can be difficult when you’re being targeted by a bully. If you need to step away from your workspace to briefly regain your focus, do so. Just be sure to take that time to focus on your goals for the project you’re working on or on visualizing what is important to you and your career.

 

  1. Find ways to reduce stress that may build up because of someone else’s inappropriate behavior. If it’s a cup of tea, a picture on your desk, taking some deep breaths – do it. These actions aren’t meant to have you avoid the situation – they are meant to keep you grounded and supported. You still need to be addressing the bullying behavior by reporting it and getting support from others, as well.

 

  1. Don’t isolate yourself. Continue to build nourishing relationships at work. These relationships can offer an important buffer to the negative words or actions of workplace bullies.

 

  1. If your efforts at reporting the bullying or mobbing do not seem to make a difference, or if your supervisor or employer does not take your concerns seriously, then it may be time to consider your career options. No one should need to go to work each day with a sense of helplessness at being able to change the situation – and there are other employers that do emphasize and support a healthy, respectful workplace.

Actions that supervisors and employers can take:
The following suggestions come from a variety of sources that specialize in dealing with bullying in the workplace. See the Resource List at the end of this article for additional sources.

  1. Take your employee’s concerns seriously. Minimizing their concerns will certainly not do anything to stop the bullying behavior – in fact, it might increase the abusive behavior if the bully believes that she or he will not be held accountable for their bad behavior.

 

  1. Create a zero tolerance anti-bullying policy.

 

  1. Make sure that every employee understands your expectations relating to respect.

 

  1. Address the bullying behavior immediately after witnessing it or having it reported.

 

  1. Hold bullying awareness campaigns to educate all workers.

 

  1. Help employees develop skill in dealing with any personal problems that might interfere with their ability to do their job.

 

  1. Encourage reporting and make it clear that retaliation will not be tolerated.

 

  1. Create graduated intervention levels and associated trainings which can range from a conversation with the bullying employee and awareness training all the way to disciplinary interventions for individuals who have not corrected their abusive behaviors.

Remember, bullies seldom “win” in the long term. This is especially true when their behaviors don’t produce the results they hope for. If you can remain engaged with your work and your organization and if you can continue to enjoy the positive relationships you form there, bullies can’t win. And if you have the backing and support of an enlightened employer and a healthy workplace, then you can feel more confident that workplace bullying will not be an issue for you.

If your organization supports its workers by establishing a respectful workplace – and they demonstrate this in their words and in their actions, then bullies will find that their efforts will backfire on them and it is likely they will face the consequences of their actions. Healthy workplaces know the value you bring – and they want to make certain they offer the environment where you   and your fellow workers can flourish.

RESOURCES

Websites:

Civility Partners, LLC. http://noworkplacebullies.com/resources

Crisis Prevention Institute http://www.crisisprevention.com/

Healthy Workplace Bill: http://www.healthyworkplacebill.org/

Mobbing-USA: Emotional Abuse in the Workplace: http://www.mobbing-usa.com/

Stop Workplace Bullying! http://www.bullyfreeworkplace.org

Workplace Bullying Institute: http://www.workplacebullying.org/

Articles:

Appelbaum, S., Semerjian, G. & Mohan, K. (2012). Workplace bullying: Consequences, causes and controls (part one). Industrial and Commercial Training, 44(4), 203-210.

Daniel, T. A. (August, 2006). Bullies in the workplace: A focus on the “abusive disrespect” of employees.

Mattice, C. (October, 2011). Seeking civility: Eradicating bullying at work. T&D, 26-27.

McKay, D. R. (2012). Workplace bullies: What to do about workplace bullies. Retrieved from http://careerplanning.about.com/od/bosscoworkers/a/bullies_at_work.htm

Peyton, P. R. (2003). Dignity at work: Eliminate bullying and create a positive working environment. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Rayner, C., Hoel, H. & Cooper, C. (2001). Workplace bullying: What we know, who is to blame and what can we do? London: Taylor & Francis.

Rossiter, S. (20006, June). Bullying in the workplace. National Career Development Association. Retrieved from http://associationdatabase.com/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/5195/_self/layout_details/false

Safety & Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) Program, Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. (April, 2011). Workplace bullying and disruptive behavior: What everyone needs to know. Report #87-2-2011. Retrieved from http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/Files/Bullying.pdf

Safety & Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) Program. Bullying among Washington library staff. Retrieved from http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/OccHealth/WorkVio/WaWorkplaces/BullyingWaLibraryStaff.asp

SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management). (2012, April 10). Managing difficult employees and disruptive behaviors. Retrieved from http://www.shrm.org/TemplatesTools/Toolkits/Pages/ManagingDifficultEmployeesa.aspx

Sperry, L. (2009). Workplace mobbing and bullying: A consulting psychology perspective and overview. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 61(3), 165-168.

Wiedmer, T. (Winter, 2011). Workplace bullying: Costly and preventable. Morality in Education, 35 – 41.