Workplace Bullying

An Ongoing Problem
by Bill Blundell
The Antioch Group

Schoolyard antics prove just as damaging at the office, and employers need to take more responsibility for it.

The issue of bullying is a hot-button topic in our society today, and it is unfortunate to see the prevalence of bullying in our nation’s schools. However, what’s often overlooked is the unhealthy prevalence of workplace bullying, or mobbing. Researcher Heinz Leymann first studied this phenomenon in the 1980s in Sweden and used the word “mobbing” to describe its occurrence, based on the idea of what happens in nature. “Mobbing” occurs when a group of smaller animals attack a single, larger animal. The point being, the animal being attacked has little chance of defending itself. As studies on this topic continued, the term “workplace bullying” has become more understandable and appropriate.

Unfortunately, there is limited research on the topic of workplace bullying. The studies that have been done have shown this issue is serious and employers need to take more responsibility for it. The Workforce Bullying Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as “the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal), which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating; and workforce interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done.”

Just as with bullying in children and adolescents, the perpetrator in the workplace seeks to do damage, which can result in the target losing his or her job, diminish respect from others, create low morale and hurt relationships with coworkers. Workplace bullying does not generally involve physical violence, as that is illegal and simple to report. However, with that said, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for a perpetrator to physically assault a target.

Workplace bullying is underreported for a variety of reasons. The target may be embarrassed about what is happening and does not want to report it. This is similar to what happens in schools with children. Many times, the target in either scenario does not want to bring any extra attention to him/herself. Other times, it may go underreported because the perpetrator is a person in power; i.e. a boss, manager, CEO or director of human resources.

Often, workplace bullying occurs within the same gender. In 2007, the WBI found 61 percent of reported workplace bullying occurred within the same gender and 71 percent of female bullies target other women. It is also interesting to note that many of the targets are veteran employees. This practice may occur because those types of workers may be seen as some type of threat in the workplace. The insecurity of the perpetrator fuels the bullying of veteran workers, as he or she may not like how much praise the veteran worker is getting. Often times, if the insecure perpetrator is a boss, he/she may begin to take responsibility for the work being done by a subordinate. This may seem to be a common occurrence in the workplace, but it is a serious form of workplace bullying.

In addition, targets are frequently those within a company who possess a high level of respect for ethics and honesty. These positive attributes are often seen by the perpetrators of workplace bullying as the target “sucking up” or being a “goody two shoes.” This further fuels the fire of insecurity and increases the likelihood of bullying. Simply put, the workers who are the most competent, hard-working and assertive tend to be targets of workplace bullying.

To date, there is limited help for targets of workplace bullying. In essence, employers should make it a priority to protect their employees from bullying and discipline those who perpetrate it. Studies show that workplace bullying can diminish production in the workplace because, often times, targets are made to feel inferior. Also, the psychological effects of workplace bullying can be significant. Bullying in the workplace can lead to depression, anxiety, and even more serious issues if not addressed. People have difficulty functioning at peak performance if they dread going to work because they have to deal with a perpetrator of workplace bullying. As of today, there are no existing laws to help stop bullying in the workplace, and thus far, the Healthy Workplace Bill has not been passed in any state in which it has been proposed. (Illinois was the 15th state to propose such a bill. HB 942 was introduced in 2012 but died in the Rules Committee.) As of April 2013, 10 states have current bills active but nothing further has occurred.

The WBI website, healthyworkplacebill.org, offers an array of helpful tools to those who are targets, including a list of warning signs that may indicate you are being bullied in the workplace. Many times, employees are being bullied by coworkers or someone in authority and do not even realize it. The website also promotes “Freedom Week,” occurring October 20th through 26th this year, to raise awareness of this epidemic. As time moves forward, it is hoped employers recognize this negative practice and begin to end it, just as schools across America have been working hard to do for children. iBi

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