Bullies have been around for as long as most of us can remember, but in recent years we have become much more aware of the incidences and sometimes tragic consequences of bullying. Anti-bullying protocols and campaigns in schools try to address bullying behavior, even including the cyber-bullying and bullying that goes on off campus. While it may seem that this problem is limited to children and adolescents who are still developing and maturing, this is just not the case.
Bullying behavior goes on in the workplace, and workplace bullies may appear to be normal, successful, professional people. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WPI), “bullying is a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, the job you once loved.” Workplace bullying is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that tends not to be physical in nature. It can include overt behaviors, or subtle things that can be difficult to recognize and address (Namie & Namie, 2014).
According to a 2014 study, more than 1 in 4 Americans report that they have experienced abusive conduct in the workplace. The same study found that over 70% of adult Americans have either directly witnessed or been aware of abusive situations in a workplace (Namie, 2014). The impact of bullying at work can be tremendous for both the victim and the employer. Twenty-six states have introduced bills to try to address the problems of workplace bullying, and offer victims some recourse. However, none of these states had been successful in passing legislation until this year. In May 2014, Tennessee approved the Healthy Workplace Act, a law designed to decrease verbal abuse at work. While some don’t feel it goes far enough, it is a start (Rubenfire, 2014). It’s essential to recognize and respond to workplace bullying and provide help for victims. Bullies themselves also need help, in addition to consequences for their destructive behaviors.
Victims of Workplace Bullying
Victims of workplace bullying may wonder, “why me?” They are often very conscientious, successful, and hardworking employees. They innocently believe that their professionalism and kindness will ensure smooth sailing at work. They tend to be more socially and technically skilled than bullies, and are well-liked by their co-workers. Women are more likely to be bullied than men. Targets of bullies tend to be non-confrontational by nature, and not likely to respond to aggression with aggression (Namie & Namie, 2014).
Many victims suffer in silence, or leave their jobs because they just can’t take it anymore. One study reports that only about 40% of victims report bullying, and only 3-4% complain to a state or federal agency (Results of the 2007 WBI U.S. workplace bullying survey, 2007). Some people are bullied and don’t even know it.
Recognizing Workplace Bullying:
Those who are socially adept, successful in the workplace, and kind-hearted by nature may be vulnerable to bullying by those who feel threatened by them. They are more successful, and the bully can’t stand it. Victims may feel confused about what’s going on, and unsure if they are really being bullied, or just over-reacting. They may even blame themselves. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that victims of bullying may experience problems and symptoms like these:
- Loss of enjoyment of fun activities with loved ones
- Feeling like throwing up the night before the start of the work week
- Family frustration with the victim’s obsession with work
- Health problems like headaches, high blood pressure, and stomach aches
- Feeling ashamed to talk with a spouse or partner about being controlled by another person at work
- Using all paid time off for "mental health breaks" from the misery
- Feeling exhausted and lifeless on days off, with no desire to anything—except maybe sleep
- Believing that they provoked the workplace cruelty (WPI, 2014)
These are all signs that life at work has become unhealthy and unmanageable. Victims pay a high price in damage to their health and their relationships. Being bullied at work is an incredibly stressful situation, and victims often agonize about what to do. They consider leaving a job they once loved, and wish things could just go back to normal. So what goes on at work that creates such stress for the victim of bullying? Bullying behavior includes things like:
- Verbal abuse, including name calling, yelling, insults
- Spreading rumors about the victim
- Intimidation and threats, which often keep the victim quiet about the abuse
- Humiliation in the workplace
- Encouraging or coercing others to alienate the victim
- Sabotage or interference with work efforts/projects
- Taking credit for the successful work or ideas of the victim
- Assignment of new tasks at work, with no training or explanation
- Demotion or job-reassignment without explanation
- Exclusion from meetings and/or work-related social events (WPI, 2014)
Co-workers, supervisors, and others may agree that the bully is a jerk, and may even witness the bullying behavior. They may try to offer support, but often don’t know what to do. Others may also fear that the bully will turn on them, too. Work is an enormous part of life, and coping with abuse and bullying in the workplace is incredibly difficult. So, what recourse do victims have to stop the bullying and get back to enjoying a job they love?
Help for Victims
Victims must first recognize bullying and psychological abuse in the workplace, and name it. They must understand that bullying behavior is real and unacceptable. Their health and well-being must be their first priority, even beyond maintaining the job. They must know that they are not the cause of the bullying behavior, and did nothing to instigate it. The bully wants to undermine the victim’s work and their confidence, and the bully is entirely responsible for his or her behavior. Here are some tips to help victims maintain their health and sanity:
- Don't get emotional. Bullies take pleasure in emotionally manipulating people. Stay calm and rational to diffuse the situation.
- Do your best work. Keep doing high quality work; otherwise the bully’s behavior may seem more justified. Avoid coming to work late, taking long lunches, or turning work in late.
- Build a good support network. Bullies will try to turn co-workers against the victim.
- Avoid isolating and work on building relationships with coworkers.
- Seek help. When experiencing bullying, talk to others who can help manage the situation. Be careful when approaching the human resources department. They work for the company, and cannot always keep things confidential.
- Get counseling. Counseling can help with stress management, and coping to minimize the effects of bullying on mental and physical health. Counseling can help validate feelings and clarify confusion about the bullying situation. Just talking to someone who believes you and understands how traumatic workplace bullying is can be very healing.
- Stay healthy. Maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle outside of work to help cope with the dysfunction at work. Work out, get a good night's sleep and eat a healthy diet.
- Don't expect to change the bully. No one can change the bully’s behavior except the bully. Victims and others have no control over a bully's willingness to accept that they have a problem and to work on it. If things don’t change, and the bullying continues, victims may need to leave the job or be prepared for a long hard fight with the bully and the employer (Callahan, 2011).
- Get Educated: Learn about company policies on inappropriate behavior. Being educated helps victims to know their rights and their options.
Ultimately, victims of bullying may make the decision to leave their job, if the situation cannot be resolved. It’s important for victims to leave with their head held high, knowing that they did the best they could in a tough situation. Even after leaving the situation, victims of bullying may continue to wonder why they were targeted and why workplace bullies do the horrible things they do.
Why do Bullies Bully?
Most simply, bullying is about power and control. Most bullies are only interested in power and dominating others. They want to feel important or special, and are willing to abuse and step on others to get what they want. Every bully is different, with different things motivating him or her to bully co-workers.
- Bullies may be resentful or jealous of the success or popularity of others
- Bullies feel inadequate, although they act superior
- Bullying behavior usually doesn’t rise to the level of criminal behavior, so often there are no consequences. Bullies think they can get away with it, and too often, they do.
- Bullies lack insight into their own behavior, making it difficult for them to change or feel empathy for the victim
- Bullies may believe the victim deserves the abusive behavior, and they are justified
- Bullies may have been bullied, themselves (Weisberg-Ross, 2010).
Whatever the cause of a bully’s behavior, victims are not responsible for it. Employers are responsible for ensuring that work environments are safe and healthy for all employees. Victims must understand that they cannot change the bully, and must take steps to protect themselves. Being a victim of workplace bullying can be a traumatic experience, impacting the victim’s emotional and physical health, as well as relationships. Sometimes, the only answer is to leave. No job is worth sacrificing your mental or physical health. Victims of workplace bullying may experience lingering problems after they leave, and counseling can help them to rebound as they seek out new opportunities.
Callahan, D. M. (2011, March 13). 10 Tips for dealing with bullies at work. Retrieved June 30, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-michelle-callahan/work-bullies_b_833977.html
Namie, G. (2014, February). 2014 WBI U.S. workplace bullying survey. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2014-us-survey
Namie, G., & Namie, R. (2014). Workplace bullying. Retrieved July 5, 2014, from http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/being-bullied/
Results of the 2007 WBI U.S. workplace bullying survey. (2007). Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2007/
Rubenfire, A. (2014, June 20). The Healthy Workplace Bill - News and Info. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://healthyworkplacebill.org/blog/wall-street-journal-first-state-workplace-bullying-law-has-few-fans/
Weisberg-Ross, R., LMFT. (2010, June 14). The Basics of Bullying and How to Stop It. Retrieved June 30, 2014, from http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/adult-bullies/