What to Do if You Are the Target of a Workplace Bullier
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 psychological effects can be devastating.
You may recall one of the first incidents that created a national awareness of the dangers of workplace bullying and bullying in general. The headline reported that a Missouri woman was found guilty of misdemeanor crimes in a “MySpace” cyber-bullying case linked to a 13-year-old girl’s suicide. According to prosecutors, the woman conspired with her young daughter and a business associate to create a fictitious profile of a 16-year-old boy on MySpace to harass Megan Meier, apparently in an effort to humiliate Megan for saying mean things about her daughter. The “boy” sent flirtatious messages to Megan, but then abruptly changed to a very harsh tone, telling her “The world would be a better place without you.” After receiving that message, Megan hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet. According to prosecutors, the woman knew that Megan suffered from depression and was emotionally fragile.
I have previously blogged about the problems related to cyber-bullying that affects dozens of young people in our schools. 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.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 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.
- Threat to professional status - including belittling opinions, public professional humiliation, accusations regarding lack of effort, intimidating use of discipline or competence procedures
- Threat to personal standing - including undermining personal integrity, destructive innuendo and sarcasm, making inappropriate jokes about target, persistent teasing, name calling, insults, intimidation.
- Isolation - including preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding necessary information, keeping the target out of the loop, ignoring or excluding
- Overwork - including undue pressure, impossible deadlines, and unnecessary disruptions.
- 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 Opportunity Commission 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 September 7, 2011