Op-Ed: Bullying Has Skipped the Schoolyard and Entered the Workplace

If you have a job, you may be bullied or be a bully. Either way, the time is ripe to learn how to stop it.

Even after hours, employees who have been bullied are unable to escape the abuse of the workplace. (Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Nov 15, 2012

A recent series of studies by big name job search engine CareerBuilder found that, currently, 35 percent of the American workforce feels it has been bullied on the job.

You may have presumed that bullying was reserved for elementary-school playgrounds and high school mean girls. But adults do indeed bully each other in the workplace. Whether a person is bullied in high school or at work, the impact is the same. The media has reported a distressing series of stories of kids and teens who have committed suicide due to peer harassment. These important stories underscore the damage bad behavior inflicts on its victims, but they stop short of highlighting the fact that bullying doesn’t end on your 18th birthday.

MORE: Quick Study: Stressed at Work? You May Be Risking a Heart Attack

According to DoSomething.Org, students who are bullied are twice as likely to commit suicide, and one of 10 students drop out because they are bullied. According to the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL), bullied LGBT students are four times more likely to attempt suicide, and they have a dropout rate three times the national average.

Similarly, according to workplace bullying researchers, 10 percent of adults who identify themselves as having been bullied think about or attempt suicide, and they call in sick to work an average of 10 more days per year than those who do not experience bullying. Adults liken workplace bullying to being beaten, physically abused, “assassinated,” “maimed,” “killed,” “annihilated” and “raped.” Adult targets experience anxiety, depression, sleepless nights, headaches, stomachaches and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Adult bullying behaviors can be categorized into three sets of behaviors: Aggressive communication, humiliation and manipulation. Below are examples from my own conversations with targets:   

Aggressive Communication. Two men I’ll call Tom and Frank worked for a major retailer as truck drivers delivering goods from the warehouse to different stores across the country. They spent days together, and sometimes weeks, taking turns driving the truck as they moved through their designated routes. Frank constantly yelled at Tom; called him names; used foul language; and made threats like, “I’ll have you fired for being so stupid.” As the bullying escalated, one night Frank got in Tom’s face and stuck his finger in Tom’s nose to hold him in position while he yelled at him nose to nose. It all came to an end when Frank let his bullying behaviors get the best of him, and punched Tom while he was driving, causing the truck to swerve off the road. Luckily no one was injured, but the retailer and Frank were sued, and settled out of court.

Humiliation. Sarah (not her real name) was a new manager of a group of women that had been working together for 10 years. The group of women had lunch together, attended each other’s family events and went on weekend trips. No doubt feeling threatened by this tight-knit group and wondering how she was ever going to be an effective manager, Sarah started with Veronica, the newest employee in the group. Sarah pointed out every mistake Veronica made, always in front of others. Sarah also told the other women that Veronica was talking badly about them behind their backs. When Veronica entered the room or passed her in the hallway, Sarah ignored the subordinate. After Veronica grew tired of Sarah and moved on to a new job, Sarah started in on Teresa. One by one Sarah removed her employees by bullying them out of the organization and replacing them with someone new. Over time, she had a new group of employees who just presumed, “That’s the way it is around here.”

Manipulation. Pamela, again a presumed name, worked for the same community college for 20 years. During that time she’d had five managers, all of whom had given her stellar employee evaluations and praised her work. The sixth manager, John, wasn’t so complimentary or easy to work with. John’s first move was to take many of Pamela’s core responsibilities away from her without telling her why. He assigned new tasks with impossible deadlines—asking Pamela to produce something in three hours that would take any normal person three days. John didn’t invite Pamela to staff meetings; so she was missing information about her department. After a year, John gave Pamela a performance evaluation that stated she had low quality work and deserved a pay deduction. Without providing Pamela an environment she could succeed in, her manager had set her up to fail.

What can be done if you find yourself feeling bullied?  Here are five tips:

1. Keep a journal of facts. This journal should be as emotion-free as possible and focus only on the actions of the bully. When incidents happen, return immediately to your desk and write down who, what, when and where. If you’d like to keep a record of your emotions, keep a separate journal. You might eventually provide your journal of facts to HR, or even to your attorney.

Focus on keeping your head up, making eye contact with the bully, pointing your toes forward, keeping both feet planted firmly on the ground, and putting your hands at your side.

 2. Collect tangible evidence. Start a file with all memos, emails and documents that are aggressive.

3. Adjust your body language. When we feel attacked the options are fight or flight. Since you can’t (legally, ethically or morally) punch a co-worker or run away from a conversation with your boss, your default option may be to tuck into as much of a ball as possible and hide. Don’t. Focus on keeping your head up, making eye contact with the bully, pointing your toes forward, keeping both feet planted firmly on the ground, and putting your hands at your side. All of this shows you are assertive and may reduce the aggressive approach of a bully.

4. Talk to HR. When talking to HR about the bully, make the conversation about the bully. Keep the focus on the bully's behavior and make the business case for addressing the behavior. If you focus on your feelings, you may be seen as the problem and might not find the help you’re looking for.

5. Know you may not win this battle. At some point, if the organization won’t help, ask yourself how much your life and your dignity is worth. I bet it’s worth more than what you’re being paid. If you’re not getting the help you need from HR, the tough reality may be that you need to find a new job.

The good news, even in a tough job market, is that you might become happier and less susceptible to the bullying simply by beginning your job search.

Have you ever been bullied or been a bully at work? Tell about how you stopped it in COMMENTS.

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