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Workplace Bullying

What to Do if You Are the Target of a Workplace Bullier

This is the first of a two-part series on bullying. This blog, which was originally posted on my Workplace Ethics blog, deals with workplace bullying. The next blog will deal with Cyber-bullying.

Workplace Bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s) including physical and emotional stress. The purpose of this blog is to help you identify whether you are the target of a bullier. If so, you should act immediately. This blog provides some resources to use to resolve the issues and stress it can cause in the workplace. The longer you wait to deal with the issue, the more difficult it becomes to achieve a successful resolution of the matter because the negative treatment becomes endemic to the workplace culture and other employees accept it as part of the group dynamic.

Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and injustice in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work. Bullying is different from aggression. Whereas aggression may involve a single act, bullying involves repeated attacks against the target, creating an on-going pattern of behavior. “Tough” or “demanding” bosses are not necessarily bullies as long as they are respectful and fair and their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high yet reasonable expectations for working safely.

If you believe you are the target of a workplace bully, speak to the person doing the bullying. Similar to sexual harassment in the workplace, the first step with bullying is to make your feelings known that it is unwanted and unwelcome behavior. While you know it can negatively affect workplace performance, I recommend you not mention that to a supervisor because it might be held against you if the matter gets out of control and a workplace demotion or firing needs to be “justified.” While talking to other employees may seem to be a logical step, be careful who you choose to discuss the matter with as that person might be pressured by the bullier down the road to tell the latter's side of the story. What should you do? Be sure to keep a log to record when each incident occurred; what was said or done in response to it; and your feelings on the matter. It is a good idea to give a copy of the log to a trusted advisor who can independently attest to the facts down the road if that becomes necessary. This is similar to the protective step I recommend for a whistle-blower.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), a nonprofit research and training organization, workplace bullying is not an unusual problem. About 50% of the U.S. workforce reports either having been bullied by someone at work or having witnessed someone else being mistreated, according to a survey of 4,210 American adults that WBI conducted last year. Examples of bullying include: (1) unwarranted or invalid criticism; (2) blame without factual justification; (3) being treated differently than the rest of your group; (4) being sworn at or threatened; (5) exclusion or social isolation; (6) being shouted at or humiliated; (7) excessive monitoring or micro-managing; and (8) being given work unrealistic deadlines. 

In terms of gender, WBI reports that women appear to be at greater risk of becoming a bullying target, as 57% of those who reported being targeted for abuse were women. Men are more likely to participate in aggressive bullying behavior (60%), however when the bully is a woman her target is more likely to be a woman as well (71%).

With some variations, the following typology of workplace bullying behaviors has been identified. The Institute also has identified 25 tactics used by the bulliers.

  1. Threat to professional status - including belittling opinions, public professional humiliation, accusations regarding lack of effort, intimidating use of discipline   or competence procedures
  2. Threat to personal standing - including undermining personal integrity, destructive  innuendo and sarcasm, making inappropriate jokes about target, persistent teasing, name calling, insults, intimidation.
  3. Isolation - including preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding necessary information, keeping the target out of the loop, ignoring or excluding
  4. Overwork - including undue pressure, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruptions.
  5. Destabilization - including failure to acknowledge good work, allocation of meaningless tasks, removal of responsibility, repeated reminders of blunders, setting target up to fail, shifting goal posts without telling the target.

The U.S. is well behind other countries in introducing legislation to protect those bullied in the workplace including Australia, Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom.  Unlike sexual harassment that became an official workplace offense in 1980 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued regulations defining sexual harassment and stating it was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no such legislation exists for bullying.  Even though comprehensive workplace bullying legislation has not been passed by the federal government or by any U.S. state, since 2003 many state legislatures have considered bills and as of April 2009, 16 U.S. states have proposed legislation. One excellent resource for additional information on workplace bullying is the website of Bully Free at Work. 

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage,, on July 19, 2011