I’m sure we all remember a time when a grade-school bully made the life of one poor kid a regular nightmare. Usually a boy, often with his gang of thugs, targeted a smaller, more awkward child, whose frail and helpless demeanour made him easy prey for the bully to intimidate, humiliate, degrade and generally torment, any time, for any reason.
This scenario, of bullying amongst children, is one we are familiar with unfortunately.
However, did you know that workplace bullying is a widespread global phenomenon? While I am familiar enough with discrimination and harassment in the workplace, I wasn’t aware that workplace bullying was a serious global problem as well. Why? Because we think of bullying in terms of the example above; as an issue that only affects children. We typically have a hard time imagining one adult having that kind of power over another adult, in a workplace situation. Furthermore, there must be laws prohibiting this kind of behaviour. After all, there are laws protecting workers from racial discrimination and sexual harassment on the job, yet despite the fact bullying is four times more prevalent, it is NOT illegal in any of the 50 U.S. states and many other countries around the world.
Workplace bullying is the repeated unjust actions of an employee [or employees], directed towards another employee [or employees], which are intended to intimidate, humiliate, threaten, torment, and generally dominate that individual to the point of jeopardizing his or her health, safety, sanity and job. It usually involves some type of exploitation, manipulation and insults [including name-calling and swearing] of the target. The bully might also hinder or obstruct the target from getting work done.
Bullies are so successful because they create an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, isolation and unrelenting psychological stress, around their victim. Day after day, you are constantly criticized, blamed without facts, excluded and treated differently than everyone else. You are sweared at, humiliated in front of your peers, micro-managed and given deadlines that are unrealistic. Often times, projects you’re working on, or other materials mysteriously disappear off your desk, making you look unorganized, and in the most serious cases, figures and facts will be changed on your reports, making you appear totally incompetent.
Yet you’re not, and it’s very likely you were targeted because you are smart and pose a threat [real or perceived] to the bully. Studies even confirmed that most targets had better skills, both social and technical than the bully.
Another important fact is that 72% of the bullying is done by managers/supervisors. Therefore most complaints fall on deaf ears, as those higher up are more likely to side with one of their own. Even co-workers start pulling away from the target, and eventually side with the bully. People who weren’t just coworkers, but friends, might suddenly turn on you and become your enemy. Why? Fear — they don’t want to become the next target.
Most people think bullying is the same thing as harassment, and harassment is illegal, so bullying must be too. Think again. While bullying could include harassment, bullying by itself is NOT illegal.
Workplace harassment is discriminatory, offensive conduct, [including sexual] which causes a hostile work environment. Sounds like bullying to me! However, typically there are civil rights laws in place to defend workers from this kind of conduct only if you are a member of a protected class. Protected classes in employment could be for race/color, creed, [religion] national origin, sex, marital status, disability and sexual orientation. For instance, if an employee tells a racist joke, refers to a coworker by using racial slurs, and is told to stop, but doesn’t, this could be considered harassment. A male manager making unwelcomed sexual advances toward a female subordinate, and threatening her job if she doesn’t comply, is a case of harassment.
When harassment or discrimination is reported, the target isn’t retaliated against, etc. and the complaint is taken seriously. Bullying is concealed more, done behind closed doors, and much more cunning and shrewd.
Workplace bullying takes place all over the world. Monster.com took a survey and approximately 2/3 of those who responded admitted to being the target of some form of bullying. The survey showed the likelihood of being bullied at work varied by region and culture. In Europe a shocking 83% claimed either mental or physical bullying. Surveys conducted in the United States indicated 65% of the population had experienced workplace bullying. Asia had the least amount of it, but still 45% of workers claimed they had been bullied at work. Belgium was the country with the least amount of workplace bullying, at 38%, with China coming in second at 40%. ChinaHR (a professional recruitment website in China) commented that cultural differences may be a factor in their low percentage of workplace bullying, as the Chinese culture is more unpretentious and humble than in Europe and America.
In general, victims of workplace bullying are affected in many negative ways, including: post-tramatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic fatigue, migranes, financially (because of frequent absence from work), low self-esteem, phobias, high blood pressure, feelings of shame, always anxious, and “on the edge,” trouble sleeping, depression, family problems, just to name a few.
There are actions that can be taken, by both employee and employer to combat bullying. Employees must recognize that they are being bullied, and know they didn’t cause it. Keep a detailed account of ever instance of the bullying, such as date, time, place and nature of the bullying. Make sure you keep any documents, such as emails or even text messages that may contain some disparaging comment, etc. Also, keep hidden back-ups and hard copies of all work documents produced, reviews, etc. to protect yourself in case the bully tries to change or alter documents. Understand that managers and HR are not going to advocate for you, so try to find one person you can trust to corroborate incidents and situations of bullying that are witnessed.
Companies must encourage a healthy culture. Managers and top executives should set good examples and have respect for employees. Employers must create a zero tolerance policy against bullying, that should be part of their code of conduct. Reports of bullying should be addressed immediately and taken seriously. Hold awareness meetings to discuss the subject of bullying. Provide a phone number victims can call, anonomously, just to have someone to talk to. Provide onsite counsellors, if necessary. If bullying is running rampant in the company, you may need to resort to hiring security people and cameras to ensure a safe environment for all.
Workplace bullying is a serious issue that affects everyone. The employees suffer and the business suffers. However, in the end, it should be the bully who suffers most of all.
Sources & References: Monster Global Survey: Workplace bullying is a common problem worldwide; Namie, D. G. (2011). Being Bullied? Start Here (Workplace Bullying Institute); Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: What Everyone Needs to Know (Washington State Department of Labor & Industries)