“Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Regina George...”
Mean Girls arguablydefines the modern high school bully experience, and when queen bee and resident sadist Regina George is finally stripped of her god-like power, we feel personally vindicated. Regina may have evolved by the end of the film, but she still ranks among the most iconic childhood tormentors whose demise we love to celebrate—brutes like Biff from Back to the Future and“Sweep the leg!” Johnny from Karate Kid.
The Reginas and Biffs from our early school days are who we think of when it comes to bullying: Those kids who made fun of us, threatened us, and otherwise went out of their way to make us miserable.
But there’s an entirely other side to bullying: the kind that takes place between adults.
What happens when playgrounds are replaced by offices, and tormentors are no longer classmates, but your coworkers and managers?
According to a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of American workers have experienced bullying on the job. That kind of abuse can include direct forms of verbal threats, taunting or intimidation, and more subtle forms of professional sabotage.
“There is usually an impairment of emotional development in people who bully,” said psychotherapist Lisa Brateman, adding the motivation of adolescent and adult perpetrators is the same. “Often bullies feel powerless, and their way of combatting that feeling... is to make someone else feel powerless.”
Add to those insecurities a down economy where jobs are scarce and competition for advancement is high, and adult bullies have added incentive to mete out some punishment.
PBS reports that in the workplace, targets of abuse can find themselves iced out of social situations, or the subjects of unrelenting office gossip and whisper campaigns. They may also see others taking credit for their accomplishments, while publicly dismissing their input on key strategies. It's not unusual for their requests for meetings and phone calls to be repeatedly ignored by their coworkers, while "emergency" meetings are called without their knowledge.
For adults working in the public eye, bullying is usually more blatant than that. Women in particular frequently find themselves the targets of criticisms leveled not necessarily at their work, but at their physical appearance or personal morality.
When law student Sandra Fluke went before a congressional committee last year to discuss insurance coverage for contraception at religious institutions, Rush Limbaugh responded to her testimony, but not with an argument about the issue at hand.
Instead, he jumped at the chance to publicly—and repeatedly—call Fluke “a slut."
Meghan McCain has had similar experiences in her own professional life. On a recent episode of Raising McCain she spoke about being bullied as an adult.
“I’ve been attacked for my weight, for my sex life, for my politics and everything in between,” McCain said.
Some may argue that while bullying is objectionable, it comes with the territory of being a public figure.
But for the average person holding down a regular job, shrugging it off, or ignoring it isn't necessarily an option. The psychological effects sustained by bullied workers can range from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
To help protect those workers, anti-bullying legislation is being considered in 16 states, but not everyone is convinced The Healthy Workplace Bill is the way to go.
Even with anti-bullying laws in place, it would be difficult to prove the more subtle forms of isolation and manipulation that are often involved, said Brateman.
Instead, she recommends a significant cultural shift in workplace environments, with anti-bullying training.
Just as diversity training lets employees know that discrimination and sexual harassment aren't tolerated, anti-bullying training would send a message that isolating and undermining coworkers is equally intolerable.
"That would be more hands-on effective than a law that says you're not allowed to bully," said Brateman.
In the meantime, for those who find themselves the targets of workplace abuse in any form, online resources like the Workplace Bullying Institute and Bully Free at Work can provide guidance, support and strategies for combating it, including healthy and safe ways to confront the problem.
Even if you're not a target you can still help. Bullies thrive on the quiet compliance of others in order to carry out their attacks. While Brateman doesn't advocate confronting anyone who's harassing your coworker, she says you can lead by example—by treating a bullied person with respect and inclusivity.
Simple actions like listening to them, ensuring their presence at important meetings, and involving them in conversations can all send a signal to the bully that their target has allies.
But what may be most important to take away from the experience is that even if you're being victimized, it's not your fault.
"When a bully attacks, it is a reflection of themselves and not the person they are bullying," Brateman said.