The Bully at Work

by Stacey J. Sage

A little over a year ago, a friend of mine shared details with me about some of the dynamics that existed between her, her supervisor, and one or two other co-workers.  What she initially described were obvious microaggressions directed at her, meant to serve as brief, quick hitting personal attacks against her.  The derogatory and negative slights eventually progressed into consistent and egregious workplace bullying which ultimately led to my friend needing to take a personal leave from work.  A startling 75% of the workforce is affected by bullying, and only 19% of workers report it.  Of the 19% of bullying that is reported, a very insignificant amount actually sees action of any kind taken.  Workplace bullying is a huge problem for organizations, and yet organizations simply aren’t doing their part in doing what’s required to combat it.

So exactly what dynamics constitute workplace bullying? Workplace bullying  is the unwanted offensive, intimidating, malicious, and/or insulting behavior, and abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied either by damaging their reputation, their self-confidence, or the relationships that the target has formed with others. It is repeated, often times health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (targets) by one or more perpetrators.  It is abusive conduct that can be the cause of work interference and sabotage, which may or may not, but typically prevents work from getting done. Workplace bullying tends to be psychological in nature but can also be physical or even walk a fine line between physical and psychological with certain types of posturing. It can be subtle or outright and is characterized by the following scale: Repetition: occurring regularly; Duration, so that it’s enduring; and finally: Escalatory, as it becomes increasingly aggressive.  Because there is usually a power disparity, the target(s) lacks the power to successfully defend themselves.

The myth that many of us seem to believe is that the targets of bullying are usually the weakest player. However, quite the contrary is true of all types of bullying. It is more often the case that the targets of bullying are often the strongest players, be it on the playground or in the office.  These strongest players typically become targets because something about them is threatening to the bully.  More often than not, the target is more skilled; more technically or otherwise proficient.  The target is also likely to have a higher EQ, as well as organizational veteran/mentor status. The bully on the other hand, will typically tend to be someone whose skills are limited to manipulating and controlling.  They see everything and everyone as competition and typically either do not feel skilled/competent enough to compete on their own merits, or they are actually not skilled/competent enough to compete on their own merits nor build the sorts of workplace relationships where they can work collaboratively to gain the skills and competencies they so desperately seek and need.  As a result, they commit to bullying in a futile attempt to feel more powerful. By using tactics of belittling, blaming, and responsibility shifting, the bully is content in creating the perception of strength

As my friend captivated my attention with her personal story of workplace bullying, one of the things that puzzled me was the fact that while countless incidents of bullying occurred in front of other team members, not one person spoke up on behalf of my friend.  In fact, the exact opposite occurred.  Several co-workers became complicit in their behavior towards her, and in so doing, created and nurtured a climate of bullying, which as covert and bearable as it may sometimes feel for other bystanders, also creates and nurtures an overall hostile work environment.  Much like playground bullying, workplace bullying isolates targets; essentially isolating good and potentially great employees.  Not only does it deteriorates and ultimately destroys company/organizational culture, it ends up costing the organization lots of time and money.

Targets of workplace bullying will experience increased stress and a loss of confidence.  The stress of the bullying will manifest itself as health problems such as anxiety; panic attacks; gastrointestinal issues; chronic headaches as well as chronic fatigue among others.  These health issues will likely lead to time needed and taken off by the target.  In some extreme cases, the target will have no recourse but to leave; leaving the company/organization with the loss of a good employee, and additional costs to back-fill the position.  In the interim, companies risk a significant dip in productivity.

By allowing the bullying to continue, witnesses to it, and the company at large, become complicit in the acceptance and growth of Toxic Workplace Culture.  The employees witnessing the bullying will feel a sense of having to make a choice.  The options being: side with the bully; risk retribution by speaking up; remain silent and pretend that they are not witness to the bullying (which will lead to an internal sense of guilt); or speak out against the bullying and risk backlash; all of which contribute to low performance and low morale in bystanders.  Eventually, the bystander(s) themselves will likely choose to leave. Organizations  where bullying is condoned tend to have higher rates of employee turnover, disengagement, far less revenue per employee, and an increased absence rate, as well as an increase in microaggressions and increased bullying.

Forty-nine US States now have Anti-Bullying Laws.  Five of the forty-nine states do not have any sanctions for bullying in their anti-bullying laws, while twelve states do include criminal sanctions for bullies. However, the language of the laws seem to be largely centered on bullying taking place at school, while workplace bullying is ‘umbrellered’ under harassment laws.  As a result of this, it’s difficult and tricky to hold bully’s and even organizations (where bullying is an acceptable part of the work climate) legally accountable. For this reason, rather than ignoring the problem, companies/organizations and employees alike need to be motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors for acknowledging and eliminating workplace bullying.  Human Resources departments nationwide should be championing hardcore anti-bullying efforts which encourage ‘upstanders’/interrupters.  Some of those efforts can include but should not be limited to setting up anonymous anti-workplace bullying processes in which employees who report bullying that is later substantiated, can be anonymously or publicly recognized for improving the organizational climate. Recognition can come in the form of additional time off, a monetary reward, and/or documented employee recognition.  Even if they don’t feel they can stand up to the bully, ‘upstanders’/interrupters (people who see something and speak up about it or who create alliances with and provide workplace protection for targets by making it obvious that they disagree with the behavior and more importantly, won’t join in) should feel empowered to speak out and stand up against the bullying that they are witnessing.  Companies and organizations should also make it very clear to all employees that their workplace is a bully free zone.  Companies should also have an anti-bullying policy created and indoctrinated as part of their sustainability goals.

As for my friend, she eventually ended up leaving the company she worked for.  She is now an independent contractor who develops and teaches anti-workplace bullying workshops for small businesses.  As an ‘upstander’ I am thankful that she agreed to my sharing just a small portion of what she encountered as the target of “The Bully at Work.”


4 thoughts on “The Bully at Work

  1. I hate mob mentality, I’ve seen things start as a distasteful joke and escalate into a mob of people bullying someone. It’s so terrible, so I commit myself to always being an interrupter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s good to hear that more companies are starting to recognize that bullying doesn’t stop at school. Kudos to your friend for turning a painful experience into a positive and to you for shedding light on the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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