Workplace Bullying: Overblown or Overlooked?

Everyone knows a bully. It’s the schoolyard tyrant who swoops in on a target, pushing him around while spewing threats and belittling him in front of others. But childhood isn’t where it stops – it’s also on display in the workplace.”Workplace bullying” is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person through verbal abuse, behavior that’s threatening, humiliating or intimidating, and/or sabotage that prevents work from getting done, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.

Recent research and a U.S. court case have spurred interest in the issue.

About 54 million people, or 37 percent of American workers, have been bullied at work, according to a September 2007 survey conducted by Zogby International on behalf of WBI. Bosses account for 72 percent of bullies, and women are targeted more frequently, according to the survey: 57 percent of those bullied are women. When the bully is a woman, 71 percent of the targets are women.

Canadian research released earlier this year by M. Sandy Hershcovis, of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and Julian Barling, of Ontario’s Queens University, found that workplace bullying is more detrimental than sexual harassment.

In April, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former medical technician who sued a surgeon for emotional distress and assault. Garry Mathiason, chair of the corporate compliance practice group at labor and employment law firm Littler Mendelson, says in a BusinessWeek story that the ruling drew national attention as a result of the courts acknowledging workplace bullying both as a phenomenon and as legal terminology.

Is workplace bullying an overlooked – or overblown – problem, and is there a viable solution?

Gauging the Problem

Tory Johnson, founder and CEO of Women for Hire in New York, says workplace bullying isn’t “overblown at all. Bullying is often very subtle and hugely damaging.” Bullies run the gamut, she says, from those who scream and make scenes, to the less-obvious types who cast dismissive glances and smirks during meetings, prompting the target to hunker down and never speak up.

Quiet bullies can be more damaging than their loud counterparts, “even if they’re going largely unnoticed by the higher ups,” she says.

Stress hinders the health of 45 percent of bullied targets, according to the Zogby survey. The WBI says employers also pay a price, for example, in turnover costs, stress-related payments for workers’ compensation and disability, and the exodus of talent.

Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, a professor at Penn State University, says workplace bullying is a real problem, and the differences in male and female bullies are clear. “I’ve heard hundreds of stories by victims, bullies, and bystanders (those who watch and may participate) across a wide variety of workplace situations, from hospitals to day care centers to schools and corporations,” she says. “Some situations are handled well, others end up in litigation.”

But some say bullying can be blown out of proportion.

“I acknowledge that some behavior would fit the description of bullying. However, in most adult workplaces what people call bullying often turns out to be discourtesy and contentious behavior, and sometimes it is not even those things, but just behavior the complainer didn’t like,” says Tina Lewis Rowe, a professional development speaker and trainer in Denver.

What’s an Employer to Do?

The WBI says bullies are a reflection of how America operates. “Our society is highly aggressive and competitive. Bullies embody these two popular tactics. Hostility is more normative than the exception. So, bullying/abuse/psychological violence at work is positively embraced more often than despised,” according to the Institute.

Finding a solution, then, might mean bucking the norm – but it’s not impossible, experts say.

Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder and director of the WBI, says bullying is endemic to the workplace; it’s not simply caused by a few bad seeds. So employers should write impersonal policies holding all employees to the same standard, he explains. Because bullies often spend years forging close alliances with higher-ups, Namie says, this absolves higher-ups from having to punish their “buddies” – it simply becomes a matter of enforcing policy.

Others agree employers shoulder much of the responsibility when it comes to quashing bullies.

“Unfortunately, employees are usually not in a position to stop bullying. Generally speaking, if bullying continues in the workplace, it is because it is tolerated at the highest levels of the organization,” notes executive career coach Cheryl Palmer, based in Silver Spring, Md. “If employers realize the toll that bullying takes on the organization, not just specific individuals, they should make it absolutely clear that bullying will not be tolerated.”

What’s an Employee to Do?

If employees feel they’ve been targeted, Namie advises against going to HR, which will ultimately side with management. He instead offers a three-step plan:

  1. Give the problem a name. This helps you stake a legitimate claim and avoid blaming yourself.
  2. Take time off. Examine your mental and physical health. Investigate your legal options. Gather information about the effects of workplace bullying on an employer, including turnover rates, lost productivity and absenteeism. Start looking for a new job.
  3. Expose the bully. Offer the information you gathered in step two, making the case to your employer that the bully is too expensive to keep on staff, and avoid getting emotional. Give your employer one chance. If they side with the bully due to personal friendship, for example, then leave, and tell everyone you’re leaving because you’ve been bullied out.

Women for Hire’s Johnson agrees that employees should take action. “The only solution is for people to feel empowered to speak up – to not be fearful of being labeled the rat,” she says. “Many times employers don’t know this exists, or there’s no track of it, so it’s easy to look the other way. Co-workers might know, but often they’re too intimidated to stick their neck out for someone else.”

Kristina Cowan is a freelance writer who specializes in education and workforce issues, but she’s covered everything from Barcelona’s polyglot culture to teen pregnancy to senior citizens’ lifestyles. Kristina has a master’s degree in journalism and a bachelor’s degree in speech, both from Northwestern University.