You would think this would be an enlightened era in the arena of workplace conduct, civility and respect, with increased awareness of women’s and minority rights, civil rights, equal opportunity, discrimination, sexual and other forms of harassment, and generally boorish behavior.
Yet workplace bullying appears to be pervasive and an expanding style and strategy of management, with little or no repercussions for the perpetrators, who use this style to enhance their power and intimidate, victimize, marginalize, humiliate and deflate their subordinates. Or in some cases, it’s a tactic used by peers to assert dominance and solidify position in the pecking order.
Management, including human resources departments, often has more interest in protecting the bully, who may be perceived as productive, effective and a company loyalist. The victim of the bully may be viewed as a whiner or troublemaker, and doubted and even blamed. Bullying in the workplace is not illegal, and any legal remedies for discrimination or hostile work environment can be time-consuming, costly, stressful, hard to prove and difficult to achieve.
It is not just the young, inept or the weak who are victims. In fact, skilled, seasoned, accomplished, competent and productive workers – many who are in midlife and at a time they should be thriving professionally – are the most likely to experience bullying at work.
In my career, workplace bullying has been alive and well in work environments. In one job at a health care nonprofit, a complaint about pervasive bullying by supervisors was expressed clearly and anonymously by employees in a survey, to the surprise and apparent dismay of top management. You would think a health care organization would embody the values of caring, dignity, respect and fair treatment, but it was not immune from bullying behavior.
Bullying can thrive in any work environment, not just in testosterone-stoked, competitive industries, especially if management is oblivious, willfully ignores – or even worse, insidiously defends or condones — such conduct.
My employer had no policy or system in place to address bullying behavior. The stopgap remedy? Make a complaint to the organization’s compliance officer, the corporate attorney, whose main job was to protect management and the organization. Would you think that would engender confidence in an employee that their concern would be taken seriously and that they would have a fair chance at redress?
I’m no expert on workplace bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute is. WBI defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment” and abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; verbally abusive; or which sabotages, or interferes with or prevents work from getting done. Bullying is driven by a perpetrator who feels compelled to control the targeted individual, and who chooses targets, timing, location, and methods to inflict emotional abuse. Bullying behavior can be acts of commission or omission.
WBI has surveyed workers and studied the targets, causes, effects and prevalence of workplace bullying. The Institute’s 2014 survey showed that more than 1 of 4 workers had current or past direct experience with abusive conduct at work. WBI cautions workers about being overly reliant on their HR department to provide support and relief; HR’s main function may be to buttress management and maintain status quo.
WBI has found that likely targets of workplace bullying are:
- A “threat” to the perpetrator.
- Independent and refuse to be subservient. In reaction, bullies escalate their campaigns of intimidation to wrest control of the target’s work.
- More technically skilled. Insecure bosses don’t like to share credit, and steal credit from targets.
- Better liked, have more social skills, and may possess greater emotional intelligence. Others appreciate the warmth that the targets bring to the workplace.
- Ethical and honest. The most easily exploited targets exhibit a desire to help, heal, teach, develop, and nurture others.
- Not likely to confront, or respond to aggression with aggression. They pay the price in that the bully can act with impunity if the employer is unaware or does nothing in response.
- Likely to suffer stress-related health problems (nearly half, according to the 2007 WBI-Zogby Survey).
The loser in workplace bullying scenarios is far more likely to be the target than the perpetrator, according to a 2014 WBI survey. In 61 percent of cases, the target quit or lost his job, compared to 15 percent for the perpetrator.
If you are being bullied at work, you should know you are not alone. Then again, as research shows, the discouraging truth is that you may likely have a lonely battle on your hands to do anything constructive about it other than leaving your job or sucking it up and dealing, with all the attendant potential consequences to your health.