Bullies in the WorkplaceArticle by Maynard Brusman, January 8, 2020
The Workplace Bully
Despite what we have learned over the past two decades, the workplace bully remains a key problem for leaders and managers. The experts including academics, management consultants, industrial psychologists all report an increase in bullying. And it’s not limited by demographics, tax brackets, or titles: bullying is increasing in cubicles, manufacturing plants, and even executive suites.
According to a 2017 National Survey, 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace. This includes 19% of Americans who are bullied and another 19% who witness it, totaling an estimated 60.4 million Americans. Examples of the bullying are much more apparent via news outlets, social media, and the like.
For organizations and individuals, the costs are staggering. Some estimates exceed $150,000/bully/year. This costs employers and insurers $250 billion annually for direct employee health care expenses, turnover and re-training expenses, accidents related to stress-induced fatigue, litigation and settlements, and resistance to top-down change initiatives.
Traditionally, experts recommend that those bullied document the events, calculate the costs, and present these to the employer with a request to remove the bully. Unfortunately, the reported success rate for this approach is only 22.3%. The best approach for individuals and organizations is prevention: protect your employees with policies that enforce zero tolerance for workplace bullying and model the behavior.
Recognize Bullying, Harassment, and Aggression
In today’s culture, workplace bullying is defined as unwelcome behavior that occurs over a period of time and is meant to harm someone who feels powerless to respond.
According to the official website of the U.S. government, stopbullying.gov:
“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior…that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
Generally speaking, bullying in the workplace goes largely unrecognized by employers, but great leaders and managers watch and listen for the signs:
- Changes in employee behavior (withdrawn, absent; agitated, frustrated)
- Individual pitting or competition
- Blaming, or taking undeserved credit
- Gossip, mockery, jokes, or other forms of humiliation
- Cliques, alliances, or teams, that are not inclusive and supportive that lead to shifts, or redistribution of responsibilities, tasks or assignments
- Spying, interfering, obstructing, poaching, undermining, or sabotaging
Aggression may involve a single incident, while bullying involves repetition and patterns of behavior. It is often subtle and hard to put one’s finger on. Bottom line, workplace bullies undermine an individual’s right to dignity at work.
Understand the Risks
While workplace bullies are likely to target peers, bullying crosses all levels of organizations. A 2019 Study suggests that stressful situations increase the risk of exposure to workplace bullying.
According to the recent study, A Risk Factor for Exposure to Workplace Bullying,
“Employees reporting a higher degree of imbalance between efforts and rewards (i.e. who are under-rewarded in comparison to their efforts) have a higher likelihood to be a target of bullying. The perceived injustice may lead employees to engage in norm-breaking behavior and also signal low social standing to others, thereby potentially eliciting negative behaviors from others.”
Other risk factors include:
- Major organizational changes (mergers, restructuring, new technology, or re-tooling)
- Staff/resource shortages
- Poor communication (silos, fragmentation, and one-way communication)
- Lack of policies
- Interpersonal conflicts
- Increased goals/demands
Left unchecked, bullying can become status-quo for an organization, creating a bully culture and a spiral of abuse.
A bully culture is created when bullying becomes accepted as part of the workplace culture. Tim Field, author and founder of bullyonline.org, describes several different types, categories, and distinctions of workplace bullying, including:
Organizational bullying: when an organization struggles to adapt to changing markets, reduced income, cuts in budgets, imposed expectations, and other external pressures.
Corporate bullying: when an employer abuses employees with impunity especially where the law is weak and jobs are scarce.
Institutional bullying: when bullying becomes entrenched and accepted as part of the culture.
Violence in the workplace is not uncommon: in 2017, assaults resulted in 18,400 injuries and 458 fatalities, according to the National Safety Council. While healthcare workers, service providers, and education workers report more violence than other industries, it can happen anywhere. Many industries have adopted a threat assessment process to prevent violence.
The threat assessment process involves three functions: identify, assess, and manage. Threat assessment is different from the more established practice of violence-risk assessment, which attempts to predict an individual’s capacity to generally react to situations violently. Instead, threat assessment aims to interrupt people on a pathway to commit violence.
According to forensic clinical psychologist Dewey Cornell, Ph.D., “We found in case after case, with a systematic, careful approach focused on the problem that stimulated the threat, the threat can go away and the concern about violence diminishes. Every threat is really a symptom of a problem that someone can’t resolve.”
It is imperative for leaders and managers to recognize the signs of a workplace bully and address issues before violence erupts.
Correct a Bully Problem
Psychologists have typically looked at violence from an individual perspective, such as who might be likely to commit violent acts, however, they need to dispel the myths and identify the organizational factors that may lead someone to bully in the workplace.
Dispel the Myths
- Not at my work
- It’s a fact of life (and we can’t stop it)
The truth is 80% of people studied in 2016 had experienced cyberbullying in the workplace, according to the University of Sheffield and Nottingham University. But there are things that individuals and organizations can do to correct a bully problem:
- Train employees on how to respond to bullying, how to communicate with difficult people, and other interpersonal training programs.
- Examine your corporate culture. Check with the human resources department for complaints of unfair treatment or stress and disability claims. Look for patterns within a department.
- Evaluate your anti-bullying policies, procedures, and processes. Ensure there is an effective and supportive system in place for reporting difficult interpersonal issues.
- Provide adequate coaching or counseling for victims and offenders.
- Set clear examples and limits about appropriate behavior at work. Enforce standards and policies in a positive way, early on.
- Mitigate stress. Certainly, managers do not have control over all the variables that may trigger stress and negativity, but when people perceive a fair workplace, they don’t act out.
Practicing respect in the workplace and eliminating bullying changes a whole company. Production and efficiency goes up, morale improves, and profits soar. Research indicates that even psychologically unhealthy people are much less likely to engage in violence in a healthy work organization.
Prevent Workplace Bullies
There is no federal anti-bullying legislation in the United States, however, 30 states have introduced workplace anti-bullying bills in recent years, and businesses in California are required to train supervisors on how to identify abusive conduct. But even without protection under federal or state law, bully behavior can be prevented and prohibited with employer policies and practices.
Attorney Jessica Westerman suggests that employers:
- Create an inclusive culture: prioritize inclusivity.
- Survey all employees (anonymously) to identify problems.
- Tailor policies and procedures in response to survey findings.
- Establish clear anti-bullying policies, and communicate via writing in all languages used in organization.
- Conduct workplace civility training to promote respect for all.
- Conduct bystander intervention training to empower co-workers to intervene and create a sense of collective responsibility.
- Establish and implement clear and simple procedures to report incidents and maintain employee’s confidentiality.
Key to preventing workplace bullying is the knowledge and belief that such incidents can be promptly reported, heard, and investigated, and that workplace bullies will be held accountable. Therefore, it is imperative that leaders create and adopt policies and codes of conduct that address respect in the workplace and bullying.
Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist & Executive Coach
Trusted Leadership Advisor
Professional Certified Coach (PCC), International Coach Federation
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San Francisco Bay Area
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