Bullies in the Workplace

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Local Arthur Views

The other day a good friend of mine who lives in Lincoln, Neb. told me about a classic case of bullying last fall for her ninth grade son. My friend's son had just started high school and began some verbal jousting with another kid. One day, the kid and three of his friends waited for my friend's son after school and started the name calling, etc. Well, you can probably guess that my friend's son ended up getting punched in the nose by a friend of the ringleader. That friend got suspended from school for three days. Nothing happened to the ringleader, but my friend was able to call the art teacher and get her son moved away from the ringleader in that class.

This case got me to thinking that while bullying is often associated with the younger generation and school-related incidents, it can also be prevalent in the workplace. Employers are beginning to take steps to make bullying as unthinkable as sexual harassment or drunkenness in the workplace. In fact, a U.S. study estimates 1 in 5 American workers has experienced destructive bullying in the past year.

Schoolyard bullying - the torment of one child by another -- is often compared to workplace bullying. Both types represent a grab for control by an insecure, inadequate person, an exercise of power through the humiliation of the target. School bullies, if reinforced by cheering classmates, fearful teachers or ignoring administrators, grow up to be dominating adults. When they join the workforce, they continue to bully others.

The common stereotype of a bullied person is someone who is weak, an oddball, or a loner. On the contrary, the target chosen by an adult bully will very often be a capable, dedicated staff member, well liked by co-workers. Bullies are most likely to pick on people with an ability to cooperate and a non-confrontational interpersonal style. The bully considers their capability a threat, and determines to cut them down.

Adult bullies, like their schoolyard counterparts, tend to be insecure people with poor or non-existent social skills and little empathy. They turn this insecurity outwards, finding satisfaction in their ability to attack and diminish the capable people around them.

A workplace bully subjects the target to unjustified criticism and trivial fault-finding. In addition, he or she humiliates the target, especially in front of others, and ignores, overrules, isolates and excludes the target.

If the bully is the target's superior, he or she may: set the target up for failure by setting unrealistic goals or deadlines, or denying necessary information and resources; either overload the target with work or take all work away (sometimes replacing proper work with demeaning jobs); or increase responsibility while removing authority.

Regardless of specific tactics, the intimidation is driven by the bully's need to control others. Research shows that bullied employees waste between 10 and 52 percent of their time at work. Research also shows they spend time defending themselves and networking for support, thinking about the situation, being unmotivated and stressed, not to mention taking sick leave due to stress-related illnesses.

Bullies poison their working environment with low morale, fear, anger, and depression. The employer pays for this in lost efficiency, absenteeism, high staff turnover, severance packages, and law suits. In extreme cases, a violent incident may be the tragic outcome.

The target's family and friends also suffer the results of daily stress and eventual breakdown. Marriages suffer or are destroyed under the pressure of the target's anxiety and anger. Friendships cool because the bullied employee becomes obsessive about the situation.

Moreover, our health care system ends up repairing the damage: visits to the doctor for symptoms of stress, prescriptions for antidepressants, and long-term counseling or psychiatric care. In this sense, we all pay.

The business case for strict anti-bullying policies is compelling. Identify bullying in your staff handbook as unacceptable behavior... There is no place for bullies in a well-run organization.

* Jeannie Claire, Albert City, has been a journalist for more than 18 years and is the author of two books.