Bullying in the workplace is a serious problem that doesn't get enough attention. Having experienced workplace bullying, I can attest that it makes work life unbearable. It affects workers, productivity, and culture in significant ways, but is too often ignored. In our consulting work at Leadership Bridges we often (but certainly not always) find that organizations experiencing dysfunction also have a history of harassment and bullying.
Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Gary Namie, and Ruth Namie, in their article Workplace Bullying: Causes, Consequences, and Corrections, define workplace bullying as
"repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct and behaviors that are threatening, humiliating or intimidating; or work interference and sabotage that prevent work from getting done."
Those who are the targets of a bully report that the behavior is intentional, and is meant to harm them, control them, or ultimately drive them from their jobs. "There is no question that the experience is deeply traumatic and stigmatizing." (Sandvik, Namie, & Namie)
In fact, the effects are significant, and cumulative. Conclusions from a variety of researchers point to lowered self-esteem, physical and emotional health, and cognitive functioning. Targets report higher levels of anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, and even suicidal ideation than do non- bullied workers. Chronic stress, high blood pressure, and increased risk of coronary heart disease have likewise been documented. In sustained and extreme cases, targets may even experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. (Sandvik, Namie, & Namie)
Coworkers and Bullying Behavior
Coworkers who witness bullying, even if they are not the targets, also experience significant effects, including "icing out" or isolation of the target; fear; guilt; depression; trauma; and finally, disillusionment.
Coworkers report a "fear of being the next target; fear of not helping correctly and botching it; fear of being the only one from a group to act; fear of retaliation by the bully; or fear of loss of one’s job and income. Thus, for coworkers as well as targets themselves, the workplace becomes a fear-plagued environment. Employers should hate this because it freezes everyone. When too afraid to act, workers are also rendered less capable of being productive." (Workplace Bullying Institute)
Workplace bullies have a significant impact on coworkers and on the entire company. Harvard Researcher, Dylan Minor, points out that toxic employees cost companies in productivity and increased turnover. His research concludes that toxic workers cost a company $1,000 per (affected) worker in lost productivity and about $12,500 in turnover costs.
The Workplace Bullying Institute puts the cost much higher and includes such factors as: Turnover, Opportunity Lost, Absenteeism, Presenteeism, Legal Defense Cost, Settlements, and Workers Comp/Disability Investigations.
The Boss as Bully
Of course supervisors should expect top performance from their employees. But bullying should never be the technique by which performance is secured. When the boss intimidates, yells, and undermines at will, the entire organization is affected. Bullying by the boss is the most damaging - and yes, most pervasive - form of workplace harassment.
We’ve all experienced the micro manager. A boss who exerts complete control over, say, office supplies, mail, and/or email will soon lose the trust, and ultimately loyalty, of his or her employees. This personality trait often results in harassment, and at the very least, a loss of self-determination among employees who experience the behavior.
When the boss is a bully, organizational accomplishment falters. Common traits of such an organization include:
- Employees stop interacting and fear being visible.
- Punishment is the key control mechanism.
- Employees don't speak out or express opinions to the boss (unless they are nodding in agreement with the boss).
- People are in constant fear of messing up or losing their jobs.
- Promotions go to the 'yes' men and women, not to the best and brightest.
Bullying in the boardroom
Boards should discuss, disagree, and express diverse opinions. That is how better decisions are made. But a board room bully can stifle discussion, create tension, and cause other board members - and even staff -to disengage. Board room bullies intimidate the staff and board members into silence, or even worse, resignation. Board room bullying is the worst form of control, since it stifles creativity, decreases organizational performance, and drives away good board members and employees.
What if you or your coworkers are targeted?
- Name it what it is: workplace bullying; harassment; or retaliation
- Document and report it.
- Take time off to heal.
- Hold the employer accountable for continuing bullying behaviors.
- If you decide to leave the job, do it on your terms. Plan your departure to suit you, not your employer, and certainly not the bully.
And what NOT to do
- Do not feel guilty. The bullying is not your fault, nor did you invite it. The cause is external to you, so there is no reason to feel guilty.
- Do not expect the trauma to fade in time. It must be stopped for the effects of the bullying on you to stop.
- Do not try to mimic the unethical behavior of the bully to counteract the misconduct. (You know that just is not part of your personality, don't you?)
Employer Responses to Bullying
An employer (and in some cases, the Board Chair) is just as responsible for the bullying behavior as is the perpetrator. Unfortunately, a firm's executives, board members, or managers may have been targeted by the bully in the past, too, and may be afraid of an emotional confrontation.
Some employers loathe conflict and are hesitant to act. Through their lack of response, the employer is tacitly endorsing the behavior, further emboldening the bully. They may irrationally fear lawsuits if they dare investigate or punish the bully.
But employers must respond to inappropriate behavior. Prevention is the first and best response, so an employer should develop (or strengthen) policies relating to workplace violence, harassment, and grievances. Once policies are in place, the employer must follow those policies.
Even without policy guidance, a leader's response should be to trust that the employee is telling the truth about the behavior and to launch an investigation. To remain fair, exceptions for any individual accused of bullying should never be made. Employers must also assure the target that the process will remain confidential to avoid potential retaliation.
Leadership sets the tone for workplace behaviors, and bullying is no exception. Organizational leaders must model good behaviors by treating employees respectfully. They must also provide regular training for employees to reinforce that harassment and bullying is not an acceptable part of a healthy workplace. These responses will help develop a work culture that makes bullying less frequent, always reported, and never tolerated.