Mention the idea of bullying, and most people immediately envision a kid on an elementary-school playground pushing smaller children around. While most people outgrow childhood habits, many bullies never stop trying to intimidate others, and their behavior frequently extends to the workplace.
Nearly everyone has worked with someone who was an adult version of that playground bully. Whether you were the target of that bully’s actions or simply watched as he or she made life miserable for other workers, you probably recognized that the bully makes the workplace unpleasant at best and frustrating at worst.
According to a 2014 national survey, 27 percent of workers have had experience with abusive behavior in the workplace, and 72 percent of Americans said they were aware of workplace bullying. Interesting, 72 percent of employers were found to deny, discount, encourage, rationalize, or defend bullying in their workplaces.
What exactly is workplace bullying?
That national survey defined workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It identified bullying as abusive conduct that can be threatening, humiliating, or intimidating. Bullying can also take the form of verbal abuse, interference, or sabotage that keeps work from being performed.
We tend to think of bullying as a visible, aggressive act, but it can often be subtle and insidious. In most cases, it doesn’t involve a single act or type of behavior, but a pattern involving several different actions. Bullying can involve everything from physically pushing or shoving someone, to yelling at them, to sabotaging their work and tampering with their personal possessions, to spreading malicious and untrue gossip in an effort to ruin their reputation. Bullies may stalk or intimidate their victims, or exclude them from social groups or activities.
Bullies in supervisory roles may create impossible expectations or deadlines and then publicly humiliate victims for failing to meet them, or increase the victim’s workload beyond what is humanly possible (and well beyond what’s expected of others). Conversely, they may assign tasks that are well below the victim’s level of knowledge or skills. Bullies may withhold information or equipment that is needed to perform tasks, or provide incorrect instructions that ensure failure.
How bullying affects workers
Individual workers who are being bullied can suffer in a variety of ways. They may become fearful or frightened, affecting their confidence, their morale, and their on-the-job productivity. Work will become something they dread, and their tension will extend to home, where they may have trouble sleeping or develop other stress-related symptoms such as headaches and stomach pains. Other workers may respond by becoming angry and lashing out at co-workers or family members.
When bullying is prevalent in a workplace, the entire organization may suffer. Increased stress and lower morale often increase absenteeism and turnover while reducing productivity. Workers who are distracted by bullying may be at greater risk for accidents and injuries. Long-term effects can include declines in production quality and customer service.
Why bullying persists
Although workplace bullying can be extremely damaging, it rarely becomes illegal. In fact, two out of five victims never tell their employers about the problem. Instead, they cope with it as best they can, or they move on to other jobs. When victims do report the problem to their supervisors, it is often brushed aside as mere conflict between individuals or a difference in personalities. While that may be accurate at some level, it minimizes the damaging effects of bullying. And, when a supervisor confronts a bully with the accusations, it may lead to reprisal against the victim.
Part of the problem may be the nature of the business world and the workplace. As business becomes increasingly competitive, people who are viewed as aggressive tend to be respected and rewarded. Intimidation may be seen as a reflection of that competitive environment, and victims may be urged to “toughen up” and “deal with it,” suggesting that their position as the target of bullying signals some flaw in their character or an unwillingness to “play by the rules.” The prevalence of that attitude also makes it more difficult for supervisors to address bullying. Many have a natural aversion to conflict and lack skills for resolving disagreements among those they manage. Supervisors may even be intimated by a bully who works beneath them.
The bully boss
Interestingly, the national survey mentioned earlier concluded that nearly three-quarters of workplace bullies were actually in supervisory roles. That may be an outgrowth of the competitive environment mentioned earlier, in which the more forceful and aggressive employees rise into supervisory roles. It can also be part of a corporate culture. If top management practices bullying and intimidation as a way to motivate the team, it’s natural for those down the organization chart to adopt that style.
In many companies, supervisory personnel may be promoted into those roles with minimal training. That means the bad habits they had as workers, or that they picked up from their own supervisors, become ingrained in the company’s operations. While on-the-job training can be a valuable way to bring people up to speed more quickly, it can also institutionalize bad behavior and unhealthy habits.
Why employers should act
Bullying is similar to domestic violence, in that it is primarily motivated by the bully’s need to control another individual. And like domestic violence, it tends to be an insidious series of behaviors that escalate over time. Because it is a safety-related issue, it should be addressed just as employers deal with other hazards on jobsites.
That begins with a commitment from the company’s leadership. Just as top management makes it clear that safety is a company-wide priority, those managers should emphasize that bullying will not be tolerated. That commitment should be backed up with a written anti-bullying policy that defines unacceptable behavior, spells out consequences, and tells employees and supervisors exactly what they should do when they encounter bullying.
As with other safety topics, the company’s policy should provide opportunities for education, so both employees and supervisors understand what types of behavior are unacceptable, and become confident that the company is serious about solving the problem. Larger companies may want to add bullying to their employee assistance programs, so employees have a confidential channel for seeking help.Safety-conscious companies are well aware of the importance of establishing a safety culture that flows through every aspect of the company’s business, and are aware that such a culture reduces injuries, improves productivity, and enhances retention. Taking concrete steps to eliminate bullying will have similar impacts on a company’s culture, and is an important element in making employees feel safe in their jobs.
The Safety Management Group is a nationally recognized professional service organization that provides workplace safety consulting, training, staffing, program planning and implementation. Visit them online at www.safetymanagementgroup.com.Copyright © 2016 Mamu Media, LLC All Rights Reserved.