Workplace bullying: Who is doing it. How to stop it

Understanding, Addressing, and Resolving Bullying Behavior in Your Workplace
By Dunn, Carney, Allen, Higgins & Tongue

Bullying in the workplace is a common, and often misunderstood problem.  In a 2007 survey, half of the employees interviewed said they had heard someone scream at a co-worker during work.  Almost one-third acknowledged that they have, after an upsetting situation at work, told someone that they wanted to do something awful to a boss or co-worker.  Workplace bullying seems to be on the rise, and now occurs 4,300 times more often than workplace homicide, and up to three times more often than unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, combined.  Most are surprised to learn that more often than not, the bully turns out to be female … and educated.  This means that certain work environments are statistically more vulnerable.

Despite its frequency, workplace bullying is often ignored or not ultimately resolved.  When complaints are raised, the employee (target) may be told a variety of unsettling things such as – ‘you need a thicker skin,’ ‘it’s just a personality clash,’ ‘give it some time,’ or ‘why don’t you tell [insert name here] how you feel?’  Not surprisingly, employees who hear these messages often leave the organization, find a way to avoid the bully, or simply remain quiet and internalize their pain and frustration.

Bullying presents many challenges for employers, not the least of which is trying to define what it is and what it is not.  The absence of a statute prohibiting bullying contributes to the problem, as does the lack of agreement as to how much and what type of bad behavior a company should prohibit.  One expert in the field defines bullying as the “sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, excluding physical contact.”  The problem of universal application of this definition is immediately apparent.

Another expert advocates for a two-part test.  First, after the target interacts with the bully, does the target feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized or belittled?  In other words, does the target feel worse about him- or herself?  Second, does the bully air his or her venom at people who are less powerful?  According to this expert, if these tests are met, then workplace bullying has occurred.  Again, imagine the frustration of the HR professional trying to apply this highly subjective and broad standard in a way that is consistent and fair.  Instead of focusing on conduct (action), this standard focuses on the impact (consequence).

Still other experts look to the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute’s definition of Workplace Bullying:

The 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;
•    threatening, humiliating or offensive behavior/actions; and/or
•    work interference – sabotage – which prevents the work from getting done.

The Institute also offers an understanding of the cycle of bullying and why it is an issue worth addressing.  According to the Institute, bullying begins with a perpetrator’s desire or need to control the target(s).  The desire takes shape as bullying conduct when the perpetrator decides on the targets, the timing, the place, and the method.  If unaddressed, the bullying escalates by involving others, either voluntarily or through coercion.  Eventually, the business interest of the company becomes secondary to the bully’s personal agenda.

Given the frequency of workplace bullying, the fact that it is a behavior that escalates over time, and the potential for significant impact on the bottom line, it is no wonder that some companies have taken steps to address the problem.  In these workplaces, employees understand that bullying is not acceptable, that there is a way to raise a concern about such conduct, and that the company will do its best to find a workable and effective solution.

In reality, few of these situations result in happy endings.  Retaliation against targets who raise concerns is rampant.  Sometimes the same conduct merely escalates, while often bullies become better at finding less obvious or less public ways to act out against the target.  In addition, targets who receive only temporary reprieve are reluctant to raise issues again out of fear of being a ‘complainer’.  Much like the early days of sexual harassment, employee behavior does not change until the organizational culture does.

Dunn Carney shares your commitment to understanding, addressing, and resolving this problem.  We have partnered with local expert, Berry Kruijning, of Crowning Communication and regional expert, Kandy Weaver, of Kandy Weaver & Associates, to develop and present our next Clients and Friends Program.  We understand the importance of executive buy-in, and have focused our materials with this in mind.  We invite you to bring one or all of your executive team members for this important discussion.  Please join us on October 14th 7:30 AM at the Multnomah Athletic Club.  To register, click here.

— Thanks to Tamsen Leachman for preparing this article.  If you have any questions about Workplace Bullying, our October 14th event or other workplace challenges, please contact Tamsen or one of our other Employment & Labor Team members.

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