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May 20, 2008 | Volume 2 | Number 3
May 20, 2008
Call it bullying, mobbing, social undermining, psychological harassment or emotional abuse, this form of persistent interpersonal workplace aggression is a counterproductive pattern of behavior that can escalate if unchecked. Targets of bullying face verbal and physical threats, personal insults, humiliation and isolation. Bullies can undermine employees’ social standing, as well as their professional status and competence — for example, by withholding information, micromanaging or questioning their credibility.
While bullying obviously damages those directly targeted, it can also affect onlookers and ultimately leads to a culture that undercuts the bottom line.
Although workplace aggression gets defined in a variety of ways and researchers are exploring a spectrum of behaviors ranging from incivility to violence, bullying has gained increasing international attention. A recent survey by Zogby International reported that 37 percent of U.S. employees have experienced bullying. Thirteen percent of workers had been bullied in the last 12 months and nearly half of American adults had either experienced or witnessed bullying. British and European studies report similar rates.
While office rumors and glares may not seem as detrimental as physical violence or sexual harassment, bullying is far more prevalent. The Fourth European Working Conditions Survey found that employees are five times more likely to experience bullying than discrimination related to religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation, while the Zogby results show that American employees face bullying four times more often than illegal or discriminatory harassment. The developing world is also becoming aware of widespread bullying and, globally, certain industries — including education, healthcare and hotel and restaurant management — are more vulnerable.
Workplace bullying takes place in the broader context of the work environment where an individual’s situation, the organizational culture and even market and social pressures can promote bullying. Bullies take advantage of power differentials among employees and respond to stressful or ambiguous situations with intimidation. Personal pressures from outside of work, such as family demands or financial worries, can also contribute to workplace aggression.
The actions of leaders play an important role when it comes to how an organization responds to bullying. If upper management sets the example of an emotionally abusive or authoritarian approach, subordinate managers may follow suit, allowing bullying to become the norm. Notably, Zogby reports that 72 percent of bullies are identified as bosses and 45 percent are backed by a senior executive who sanctions their behavior. Individual supervisors who encourage competition by placing winning results above ethical practices and pit employees against one another may also inadvertently encourage bullying. Likewise, a hands-off management style can evolve into one that tolerates abuse, because employees don’t face consequences.
Organizational structure can also affect the prevalence of bullying, especially when the organization is experiencing a period of stress and change. Situations in which employees find themselves underresourced, facing high work demands and time constraints, and struggling with disorganization and poor communication, may lead some employees to react to increasing challenges and perceived unfairness with aggression or take out frustration on peers or subordinates. Some employees may also resort to bullying in response to a rigid hierarchy that offers little opportunity for growth or advancement.
Based on a U.K. study, employees who are currently bullied have the worst mental and physical health, the highest rate of absenteeism and intention to quit, and the lowest levels of productivity, job satisfaction and organizational commitment. In the Zogby survey, 45 percent of those bullied said that stress affected their health, which translates into higher healthcare costs for employers. The “human costs” of bullying include employees who withdraw and disengage from their work, distracted employees who make more errors, and disgruntled employees who may try to retaliate against their employers. As bullied employees quit, transfer and choose early retirement, high turnover rates leave behind a trail of recruitment and training expenses. In addition, some organizations face the costs of investigating claims, paying litigation fees and compensating victims, as well as the time, money and energy required to repair a damaged reputation.
According to the Zogby survey, despite the prevalence and consequences of bullying, forty percent of victims never report it to their employer, only four percent file formal complaints and just three percent sue. Most bullied employees exit quietly, largely because confrontation and filing grievances rarely produce positive outcomes. In cases where employers were made aware of the situation, 44 percent did nothing, while 18 percent of the time, the problem actually escalated. Holding complainants responsible for a solution or not taking them seriously not only lets bullies “get away with it,” but may also put organizations increasingly at risk for lawsuits. A 2007 poll conducted by the Employment Law Alliance found that 64 percent of U.S. workers believe that bullied employees should have the right to sue for damages.
Over the past five years, thirteen states have introduced anti-bullying bills that seek to address a gap left by anti-discrimination and harassment laws based on “protected status” (e.g., gender, race, age, disability, ethnicity, religion). Although none passed, other countries have introduced a variety of laws and codes of practice that address bullying at a legal and societal level. For example, France’s 2002 law on “Social Modernization” criminalized so-called “moral harassment” in the workplace. The law not only requires employers to take preventive measures, it also holds employers responsible for bullying, covers protection and compensation for victims and threatens guilty parties with fines and jail time. In contrast, Finland’s Occupational Safety and Health Act builds a partnership between employers and employees to create a work environment free of physical and psychological violence. Meanwhile, the U.K. has no unified legislation on workplace harassment, but several acts cover and punish bullying behavior.
Employers can take organizational-level measures to prevent bullying and respond quickly and effectively if bullying does occur. This begins with an anti-bullying policy and depends on the support of management, so that promoting a healthy workplace becomes part of the organization’s culture. Whether framed as part of workplace conduct guidelines or an organizational ethics code, a formal policy should identify the standard of behavior and the consequences for violating those expectations. Bullying can be addressed alone or in conjunction with other forms of harassment and workplace violence, but employees need to be aware of the issue and informed about the organization’s policy and procedures.
Some employers have their employees sign a contract committing to a bully-free workplace while others rely on new employee orientations, workshops and office campaigns to educate employees. The participation of management is key to the success of all of these strategies. While leaders who model respect, fairness and openness set the example for employees throughout the organization, managers also need to be prepared to handle informal complaints to prevent escalation. Another approach to addressing workplace bullying is having either EAP staff or a designated co-worker available to listen to employees’ situations and help them identify strategies for how to best manage bullies. In some cases of bullying, employers may need to rely on an impartial, third-party mediator to avoid polarizing an office as witnesses take sides.
To address bullying effectively, employers need to have open, two-way communication mechanisms in place and know what is happening on the ground. Exit interviews and surveys provide after-the-fact insight, but prevention is the best defense against bullying. Organizations facing change, economic stressors or those in vulnerable industries can preempt workplace aggression by making employees aware of how work strains can affect their behavior and providing tools to help them manage stress. While there is little research on workplace bullying interventions, employee perception is a defining factor in workplace culture. Employees who believe that complaints will be taken seriously and handled fairly share and enforce this expectation.
Whether unchecked hostility leads to a toxic workplace or the negative work environment breads aggression, bullying affects the bottom line. Bullies exist wherever their conduct is tolerated, but a workplace culture of fairness and respect can help prevent the problem before it starts.
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