10 Facts You Need to Know About Workplace Bullying

April 01, 2015

Bullying in the workplace has been a hot topic lately. More research is being done on the effects of this bullying on not only the victims but also the entire organization. This piece presents 10 facts about workplace bullying that will lend insight into the effects and what can be done.

1 – Awareness ofis widespread; actions to prevent are rare.

A total of 65.6 million U.S. workers have been affected by bullying, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Twenty-seven percent of workers are either experiencing abusive conduct at work currently or have in the past, and 21 percent have witnessed it, according to a 2014 WBI nation survey.  Overall, 72 percent of the American public is aware of workplace bullying. A 2013 WBI poll of business leaders found that 68 percent of executives considered workplace bullying “a serious problem.” Here’s the rub: Most employees do not think that their employers do enough to confront workplace bullying, according to the 2014 WBI survey. And many time targets of workplace bullying do not report incidents for fear of negative consequences, according to a January, 2015 article in the Huffington Post.

2 – Workplace bullying is not a one-time incident, but a pattern of repeated behavior.

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated mistreatment; abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; work sabotage, or verbal abuse, according to the WBI. It is also called repeated psychological harassment or non-physical violence.

3 – Workplace bullying can damage businesses in ways that are difficult to detect.

Many businesses fail to set zero-tolerance policies, conduct employee training, offer counseling services (for victims), or coaching (for perpetrators) because the costs of bullying at work are not tracked. These costs include unwanted turnover of key skilled personnel, absenteeism, presenteeism (being at work but not productive), higher insurance costs (health and employment practices liability), and litigation expenses. Intangible costs include damage to organizational reputation and impaired ability to recruit and retain the best talent.

4 – Most employers deny, discount, rationalize or defend workplace bullying.

WBI survey results show that most employers still, despite widespread media coverage, fail to fully address repeated mistreatment and abusive behavior by managers and employees. “It is clear… despite significant public awareness, employers are doing very little voluntarily to address bullying,” the 2014 WBI national survey stated. According to the report, 25 percent of respondents say their employers simply deny that bullying happens and fail to investigate complaints. Another 16 percent say employers discount bullying or describe its impact as not serious. Fifteen percent say employers rationalize bullying by describing it as a business-world norm – a routine way of managing or working together, done without malice. Eleven percent say their employers defend bullying when the perpetrators are executives and managers. (Most bullies are managers – 40 percent of WBI survey respondents said bosses were the principal perpetrators of bullying and abusive conduct.) Only 12 percent of survey respondents say employers go on the offensive and take steps to eliminate bullying.

5- Many managers lack self-awareness of their behavioral effect on others.

Many workers – managers and employees – possess scant empathy when it comes to understanding how their behavior is perceived by others, according to research by a professor at the Columbia University Business School and a doctoral candidate at the school, as reported in The Wall Street Journal. For instance, people generally underestimate their own aggressiveness. They’re inclined to view themselves in a positive light (a protective sense of self-esteem), and expect others to share their perception. Aggressive bosses are unlikely to receive feedback from peers or subordinates on their behavior. Who wants to tell their boss he or she is being inappropriate? The resulting “blind spots” that handicap bosses can perpetuate bullying. The Columbia researchers liken many aggressive bosses to high-pressure weather systems – blowing feedback off (if they receive it at all) and pushing back input from others. They will debate any feedback, offer excuses, and defend themselves. Business cultures that implicitly or explicitly approve of aggression and competitiveness as ways to get ahead help sustain a resistance to changing an individual’s combative behavior.

6 – Most bullying victims suffer physical and psychological harm.

Bullies can, through repeated, prolonged abusive behavior, inflict numerous stress-related diseases and health complications upon victims. The top five health problems reported in a 2012 WBI survey were: anxiety (72 percent), loss of concentration (71 percent), disrupted sleep (71 percent), hypervigilance symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (60 percent), and stress headaches (55 percent).  Other health consequences include clinical depression, panic attacks, high blood pressure, stomach disorders, heart palpitations, irritable bowel syndrome, and sexual dysfunction. According to the WBI survey, 71 percent of bullying targets sought treatment from a physician, and 63 percent saw a mental health professional for their work-related symptoms.

7 – Many targeted victims choose to remain silent about their abuse.

There are numerous reasons why bullied workers do not speak up, report incidents or confront bullies. The fear factor is the common thread running through decisions to remain silent. Victims fear losing a job; being accused of not being tough enough; having one’s reputation damaged; having responsibilities reduced; being demoted; not receiving a raise; or receiving a bad performance review. Since most bullies are managers, a power game is sometimes played out with perpetrators having many “tools” at their disposal to silence victims. The most typical behavioral responses from victims are 1) withdrawal from family and friends; 2) overeating; 3) drinking alcohol more heavily; 4) venting anger at family and friends; and 5) turning to religion, faith or spirituality, according to a 2013 WBI survey.

8 – Most targeted victims are conscientious, cooperative workers.

Coworkers who have witnessed bullying on the job report that the victims are most often women, and they believe the targets are most often compassionate and kind, cooperative and agreeable. Most witnesses also believe that bullying targets are incapable of defending themselves. WBI suggests that these positive personality attributes may render victims guileless, naïve, idealistic, and vulnerable to unpredictable attacks. Bottom line: Some of an organization’s most valuable, productive employees can be damaged by bullying, causing damage to the organization.

9 – States are beginning to adopt healthy workplaces legislation.

Tennessee recently became the first state to pass the model “Healthy Workplace Act,” a law designed to encourage public sector employers to create an anti-bullying policy that addresses abusive conduct by making agencies in the state immune to bullying-related lawsuits if they adopt a policy that complies with the law.

In California, a workplace anti-bullying law for private sector employers became effective January 1, 2015. California’s A.B. 2053 requires employers with 50 or more employees that already provide training on preventing sexual harassment to include new training for supervisors on preventing abusive conduct.

Both Tennessee and California laws define bullying as repeated infliction of verbal abuse – derogatory remarks, insults, epithets, verbal or physical behavior that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating; or the undermining of a person’s work performance.

More states are expected to adopt anti-bullying laws in the coming years as anti-bullying continues to trend upward in the news and public pressure builds on businesses to take action, according to the WBI.

10 – There are numerous solutions to address workplace bullying.

While some organizations are doing an excellent job addressing bullying, others could benefit from resources specifically designed to assist in this area. Education at all levels of an organization can build awareness and show senior leadership’s commitment to stop bullying behavior on the job. Be careful not to rush into training as a knee-jerk reaction to a bullying problem already widely known among employees. Such attempts are seen as patronizing, superficial and lacking credibility.

Tapping into Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services can make use of specialists who can, depending on circumstance, act as mediators, executive coaches, and diplomatic advocates for victims, as well as provide clinical support and act as honest brokers. Sometimes the best service rendered is to provide a person who victims can confidentially talk with – in a safe, trusted communication channel. The specialist can also help the victim cope, and just listen.

Zero-tolerance policies can be established and enforced, but they will only be effective if actively promoted by senior leaders in an organization. Holding bullies accountable for their behavior with disciplinary consequences must start at the top of organizations, be modeled by senior leaders, and become part of the organization’s cultural values and norms.