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Bullying in the workforce

February 6, 2017

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Workplace bullying is way more common than it should be.  Research from the University of Phoenix revealed that over 75% of employees surveyed have experienced workplace bullying – either as a witness or a victim.  It’s important to be aware of the signs within your organization so that you can recognize when bullying is occurring and stop it in its tracks.

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as repeated mistreatment and a form of “abusive conduct.”  According to the Institute, “Eye rolling may be part of bullying, but it alone is not sufficient. Nonverbal cues coupled with verbal abuse and the tactics of exclusion are delivered by perpetrators repeatedly in order to intentionally harm targeted individuals. The closest analogy to workplace bullying is domestic violence. Bullying is a non-physical form of workplace violence.”  Cyber bullying especially has been prevalent in the last year.

Based on the Institute’s latest study in 2014, 72% of respondents either experienced, witnessed or knew of bullying in their workplace.  Bullying encompasses personal attacks such as yelling, threats and rumors, as well as manipulation tactics such as isolation, sabotage, micromanagement and unrealistic deadlines.  Bullying is generally persistent and prolonged in nature; carried out by one or more persons against one or more targets; conscious behavior with the intention to harm the target; and has a devastating influence on the emotional well-being of the victim or target. 

A 2016 study by Aarhus BSS and the University of Copenhagen found that bullying has surprising effects based on gender.  A total of 3,182 people in both public and private organizations were surveyed.  The study found that men will go to work, even though they feel sick to the stomach, where women will not.  “The million-dollar question is why men primarily react by leaving the workplace, while women react to bullying by taking prolonged sick leaves. If anything, this illustrates that men and women handle bullying differently,” says Assistant Professor Tine Mundbjerg Eriksen from the Department of Economics and Business Economics at Aarhus BSS.  Another surprising finding of the impact of bullying of men is that it affects their long-term earnings, whether by lower raises or failing to promote. 

Other earlier studies show that bullying creates more post-traumatic stress disorder and long-term sickness than for example violence, threats and sexual harassment.  In addition work productivity is impacted by two million or more lost workdays per year.

Who are the bullies?  The Workplace Bullying Institute 2014 report showed that men (69%) are more likely than women to be bullies and their targets are women (57%).  When women are the bullies, other women tend to be their targets (68%).  The more likely bully will be the boss.  And unsurprisingly, men are more likely to report bullying than women.  Finally, although it may be counter-intuitive, WBI research findings confirmed that targets appear to be the veteran and most skilled person in the workgroup.  Those who bully tend, by the report, to be feeling less competent and in control, so bullying can provide power in a perverse way.

In the U.S. there is no specific anti-bullying statute for the private workforce except in California, and that applies to employers with 50 or more employees.  And in this case, there is no private cause of action.  However, depending on the situation, the bullying could fall under EEO laws.

It’s important for HR to be proactive. Training should be interactive, placing managers in various situations to understand their impact on the employees they supervise.  Moreover, managers’ managers must be willing to take appropriate disciplinary action to put an immediate stop to any potential or actual bullying situation.  In a world that is competing for the limited talent, Glassdoor and other web reviewing sites could negatively impact the attraction of talent and the employment brand.

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