Lee is a young lawyer just one year into a competitive position at a prestigious law firm.  He works 80 to 100 hours a week, many times sleeping in his office.  His boss, a female partner in the firm, frequently shouts at him during meetings or calls him at home in the early morning to demand that he re-draft petitions.  She is frequently sarcastic in her communications with Lee and demands that he be available at all hours for “brainstorming.”  She has made it clear that junior members of the law firm who are retained are those with a tough skin.  Over the last three months, Lee has experienced splitting headaches, has lost 20 pounds as his stomach is chronically upset, and finds himself staring at the computer screen unable to concentrate.

Ann works as a cashier at chain supermarket.  She has been in her position for 7 years and earns a good wage under her union contract.  Because she is a single mother, she needs her job to provide for her two young children.  Christine is a new cashier who is younger and more outgoing and quick-witted than Ann.  Christine has a cutting sense of humor and has used Ann as the butt of some jokes—mainly oblique ones related to Ann’s weight—something Ann has been struggling with for years.  A few months after Christine started working, Ann notices that a clique has formed.  Christine also invites her co-workers to activities after work; but, has never invited Ann.  Increasingly, Ann feels isolated from others at work.  Her sleep is disturbed and she feels anxious.  She no longer enjoys going to work.

Lee and Ann are both the victims of workplace bullying.

Wait.  Adults at work don’t bully one another.  That’s playground behavior.  Right?  Wrong!  In fact, it is estimated that 65 million workers are impacted by workplace bullying.  The Workplace Bullying Institute estimated that in 2014, a whopping 27% of U.S. workers were experiencing currently or had previously experienced bullying at work.  

What is bullying?  Generally, it’s psychologically abusive behavior intended to intimidate, humiliate, or demean one or more one individuals over time.  One person or a group of people can engage in bullying.  Bullying behaviors can be verbal or physical, and carry the risk of having severe, long-term consequences for the recipient of the bullying.  It is readily identifiable when blatant—angry outbursts or physical intimidation directed at co-workers or subordinates.  But bullying can also go well-beyond overt behavior. 

Consider these behaviors and whether you would consider yourself bullied at work if these were directed at you:

  • Being the target of sarcastic comments or looks when you offer suggestions
  • Being asked to take on unrealistically heavy workloads or regularly given very simple tasks to do
  • Requiring that you forego long-planned vacations, or being available to take on the shifts or workload of others
  • Being micromanaged and then being punished for failing to meet poor or undefined standards
  • Not being given the necessary resources to meet your job’s requirements
  • Having demotions implied if you fail to follow high demands
  • Being socially excluded from activities
  • Having gossip or rumors spread about you
  • Being humiliated in front of others

You may think that these are behaviors to be expected for the job; especially in those that are high paying or prestigious.  However, these are the very behaviors that constitute bullying.  Who is a bully at work?  It can be a boss, your co-worker, or even a subordinate who is bullying a boss.  

Unfortunately, most employers tend to minimize, deny, or even ignore bullying.  In some cases, the employer may “turn a blind eye.”  There are also organizational workplaces that not only tolerate bullying, but encourage it.  Such workplaces may not view these types of behaviors as “bullying,” but as making sure the employee is “up to the task” given the stress and demands of the particular job.

Bullying behavior can have severe negative consequences for the employee and the employer.  Employees may experience the following symptoms, not exclusively at work, but in their daily lives as well:

There are negative consequences for employers and the organization too:

  • Loss of morale
  • Loss of efficiency
  • Loss of productivity
  • Increased use of sick leave
  • Staff turn-over
  • Attrition
  • Possible litigation

What can you do if you are the target of bullying? 

  • Seek support from your co-workers
  • Inform your supervisor of the behavior
  • Keep a detailed diary of the behaviors, dates, times, and witnesses
  • File a formal incident report that could result in an investigation. 

What can you do to help protect yourself from the bullying behavior? 

  • Talk to others for advice and support
  • Ignore the bullying, avoid the perpetrator(s), or confront the perpetrator(s)

Change the locus of control: you are not a victim, you can change the situation.

Enhancing your sense of control can allow you to keep from becoming overwhelmed by a negative situation.   

  • Have confidence in your ability to deal with the bullying behavior
  • Don’t fall into a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. 
  • Don’t immediately respond with a negative emotion or behavior—walk away and allow yourself some time to process the situation and consider a better way to react and resolve the problem.
  • Don’t believe that this behavior will go on forever, be optimist that things will change for the better (e.g., maybe the perpetrator will be transferred or leave the workplace).
  • Look to humor for support.  When we are in great stress, humor can be a remarkable stress-reliever.  Can this situation be turned on its head and considered funny and ridiculous, instead of devastating and overwhelming?

The bottom line:

Workplace bullying is inappropriate, and no one should have to put up with it.  Indeed, employees and employers should become more aware of this pernicious behavior and take measures to recognize and eliminate its occurrence. 

Resource:

Workplace Bullying Institute: http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2014-us-survey/