Bullying: It’s Not Just Junior High, Problems with Bullying in the Workplace:
Understanding contributing causes and practical steps for employers and employees.
Ernest J. Bordini, Ph.D., Executive Director, and Nataly Schacter, Office Intern
2121 NW 40th Terr. Ste B. Gainesville, FL 32605 (352) 336-2888 CPANCF.COM
Psychologists often see the harmful effects of childhood bullying. Reactions can involve becoming withdrawn or reacting by becoming aggressive or destructive. We have all witnessed some of the rare but tragic reactions including school shootings and suicides. While these dramatic and senseless acts attract national attention, the far more common consequences can include suffering social anxiety, depression, low-self-esteem, and insecurity.
The most common risk time for bullying is early teen years and middle school. Interpersonal competition, development of social identity, adolescence, and entry into larger social groups all play a part. Fortunately, bullying tends to diminish in frequency and intensity as there is greater development of maturity, empathy, perspective and restraint. However, it is clear that some bullies never mature. They develop a pattern of intimidation and aggression that become part of their personality traits. They can continue to wreak havoc in the workplace, social circles and families.
It is somewhat surprising that a large study found about half of American adults have witnessed or experienced bullying in the past 12 months and that slightly more than a third of American workers have experienced bullying. This was up to 4 times more common than discriminatory harassment (Zogby International, 2007).
Causes and factors that influence bullying are complex. They involve organizational factors, leadership issues, procedural obstacles, personality variables, outside stressors, and even the psychology of individuals who tend to be victimized.
Tolerance of bullying and failure to effectively deal with workplace bullying are costly in terms of employee health and satisfaction. Workplace environments which allow or ignore such behaviors often will develop low morale, high turnover rates, absenteeism, and may even experience property destruction. Bullied employees have amongst the highest rates of absenteeism and the lowest rates of productivity and satisfaction. A large international study found nearly half of the bullied employees reported negative health impact. This can cause increased healthcare costs (Zogby International, 2007).
Workplace bullying can take many forms. Threats or acts of physical or sexual violence, intimidation, violations of personal privacy, shouting, spreading rumors, and violations of boundaries and personal space are the most common examples. However, it can take less direct forms such as the sabotage of other’s performance, success or recognition. Bullying might also involve passive-aggressive acts such as withholding necessary information, failing to include individuals in activities, or even failing to acknowledge or greet co-workers.
Workplace environments may unwittingly fail to address bullying by blaming the victim. They may discourage or minimize valid complaints, may be inconsistent in addressing aggressive or intimidating behavior, or expect the victim to “just take it”. There may be avoidance of confronting the perpetrator when superiors also feel intimidated, or when the perpetrator is in a position of power or authority. While some personality types can have difficulties working together, bullying behavior inevitably involves violations which are generally not tolerated in the workplace. A common error is to simply dismiss transgressions as due to a personality conflict.
Workplace environments where cutbacks or reductions of resources are occurring, where there is lack of opportunity for advancement, or where workers feel powerless due to limited control or sense of participation can fuel alienation, aggression and other negative behaviors. An authoritarian corporate style that overemphasizes competition and practices pitting employees against each other often fosters anger, harassment and bullying. On the other extreme, a laissez-faire and overly tolerant organization which refuses to confront problems in the workplace can convey a permissive tone for transgressions.
Most behavior tends to be influenced by rewards or consequences which occur immediately or shortly after the behavior. Unfortunately, responses to bullying can often be delayed by investigations, procedures, and even a tendency to wish the problem will “just go away”. Thus, procedural hurdles and delays in confronting the situation can result in immediate and short-term sadistic pleasure or tangible rewards from violations of others rights with only a risk of uncertain and delayed consequences. This can make it difficult to curtail such behavior even when managers or institutions engage in efforts to address the perpetrator(s).
Some individuals, by personality or character, tend to stir up conflict by their own unrestrained behavior and/or lack of respect or boundaries with others. Some recreate the chaos of dysfunctional or abusive family environments. Some thrive on power, and others seem to generate clouds of conflict wherever they go. Some individuals who bully suffer long-standing personality disorders in which they are aggressive and demean others. They often externalize blame and justify their behaviors based on perceptions they are mistreated. Many bullies value control and dominance more than harmony and achieving mutual goals. They can be difficult to manage and to can be difficult to effectively treat.
While personality traits and socialization are often are relevant to the dynamics of chronic bullies, personal and situational factors can also be contributors. Personal issues, financial problems, marital conflicts and other pressures or stress outside the workplace can cause or contribute displacement of frustration or anger into the workplace.
Psychologists understand that there is a science and psychology of victims. Sometimes victims may have histories of anxiety or abuse, may be very sensitive, very reactive, or may be very unassertive. They may have physical, communication, psychiatric, developmental, social skill, or learning difficulties which cause them to feel vulnerable or overwhelm their coping abilities. Sometimes simply being different than the majority of a work-group can make individuals vulnerable and sensitive to reactions and comments by peers. Over-reactions can fuel further bullying and often distracts the focus from the bullying behavior to the victim.
There are factors which tend to reduce bullying and effective means of dealing with bullies and providing help or support to victims. Environments which provide good leadership, modeling of expected behaviors, which set and enforce clear limits and standards, provide employee and manager education, provide effective employee assistance program (EAP) services, and which offer efficient and fair grievance procedures tend to help.
Educational efforts on bullying and workplace violence policies are helpful. However, it is far more important to “walk the walk” than “talk the talk”. Prevention is a key. According to one study (Stambor, 2006) reported in an American Psychological Association Monitor Article, “pervasive workplace bullying has five to six times the lasting effect of positive workplace events”.
Leadership responsibility cannot be underestimated. Studies suggest that bullying often permeates from the top. Leadership should set the tone by not engaging in such behaviors and making it clear that such behavior will be addressed and will not be tolerated. Obviously, bad behavior by leaders has predictable results of undermining the credibility of policies, prevention programs, and/or education. Thus, good leadership and good examples play a vital role in reducing bullying and harassment and improving morale.
What Employers Can Do:
- Promote a culture of respect
- Promote respect of employees, respect physical boundaries and maintain distance, especially when there is anger.
- Organizational education and prevention programs
- Workplace conduct guidelines with formal policy and stated consequences
- Employee Assistance Program involvement
- Encourage communication and conflict resolution skills
- Expect, promote, and model good leadership and management behavior
- Encourage awareness of manager and supervisor demeanor, tone of voice, physical gestures.
- Discourage sarcasm, humiliation of employees – praise in public, criticize in private
- Take complaints seriously.
- Fast and effective responses when bullying occurs
- Third-party mediation
- Exit interviews
What Employees Can Do:
- Communicate concerns in calm manner
- Learn and develop de-escalation, communication, and conflict resolution skills
- Articulate boundaries and specify unacceptable behavior
- Learn to remain calm and still remain assertive
- Use chain of command
- Seek support and assistance in coping strategies through EAP services
- Document repeat incidents
- Use formal grievance or complaint procedures when available informal attempts fail
- Utilize good stress management and self—care strategies
- Consider transfer
Further Resources on the CPANCF.COM Website:
Duffy, M. (2009). Preventing workplace mobbing and bullying with effective organizational consultation, policies, and legislation. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 61, 242-262.
Gault, D. (2005). Creating respectful, violence-free, productive workplaces: A community-level response to workplace violence. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 4, 119–138.
Keashly, L., & Jagatic, K. (2003). By any other name: American perspectives on workplace bullying. In S. Einarsen, H. Hoel, D. Zapf, & C.L. Cooper (Eds.), Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice (pp. 31–61). London: Taylor Francis.
Neuman, J.H., & Baron, R.A. (2005). Aggression in the workplace: A social psychological perspective. In S. Fox & P.E. Spector (Eds.), Counterproductive workplace behavior: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 13–40). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Neuman, J.H., & Keashly, L. (2005, August). Reducing aggression and bullying: An intervention project in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In J. Raver (Chair), Workplace bullying: International perspectives on moving from research to practice. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the Academy of Management, Honolulu, HI.
Zak Stambor, Monitor on Psychology, Volume 37, No. 7 July/August 2006