Bullying in the Workplace

Last month we discussed anger and its impact on the workplace. Not surprisingly, we had several requests asking for a paper on bullying. While we could simply examine the prevalence and impact of bullying, I had the opportunity to talk to Rabbi Irit Printz from A World Without Bullying and Nicholas Babiuk, who served as the Program Director of Trails Youth Initiative prior to joining the Witz team. Together with Greg Witz, President of Witz Education, we explore the topic of bullying and what can be done to stop it. All original sources are hyperlinked through the article should you want more information.

What is bullying?

In the 44-page “Bullying in the Workplace” handbook published by the Ontario Safety Association for Community and Healthcare, “bullying is defined as repeated, persistent, continuous behavior as opposed to a single negative act and is general associated with a power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator, where the victim feels inferior.”

“To be bullied requires the persistent repetition of a damaging interaction”, says Rabbi Printz. “These behaviors can be intentional or unintentional. For example, what one person considers an inside joke could actually be perceived as bullying by the other person”.

Nicholas Babiuk agrees. “A relationship exists between the two. You generally have one individual creating a sense of personal empowerment through disempowering the other, which may be unintentional.”

Mark Bania, managing director at CareerBuilder.ca, reported that their 2012 Harris Interactive study showed victims identified their bully as a co-worker (24%) or their boss (23%), with 55% being younger than their bully.

The study also found victims define bullying in a number of ways. While 50% feel bullied when they feel different standards or policies are being used for them over others, 49% define it as being ignored and 29% feel bullying is when they are gossiped about. You can see some of the other bullying tactics reported here.

“It boils down to their perception of what bullying is.”, says Bania. In other words, if you feel you are being bullied, you probably are.

What is the personality of the bully?

While we all have an idea of what a bully looks or behaves like, we must also understand how his or her personality contributes to bully behavior.

“Often bullies experience low self-esteem and self-confidence, using the demoralization of others to feel secure,” Greg Witz tells me.

“Looking at personality through transactional analysis, one might see this type of behavior in someone with high Critical Parent, Spontaneous Child, and Angry Child scores paired with low Nurturing Parent. In other words, these people can be very direct and blunt, potentially aggressive, and may not necessarily perceive how their actions are affecting others. Pair this with a social personality who has the “gift-of-the-gab” and you have someone who could very easily hide behind different masks depending on the situation.”

Gary McDougall, a facilitator at Conflict Solutions and a retired hostage negotiator for the Calgary Police Force, agrees. In an interview with Canadian Occupational Safety, he describes bullies as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, vicious and vindictive when alone with their victim but innocent and supportive when people are around. It’s part of the reason that bullies are successful at climbing the corporate ladder.

What are the signs of bullying?

As described above, bullying can take form in a number of ways. Some bullying is overt and the victim is fully aware of being bullied. Other times bullying is more subtle, such as:

  • being excluded from meetings or communications
  • resources being withheld
  • unusual changes in workload
  • people keeping their distance
  • sudden change in performance reviews
  • criticism has changed to personal attacks

“In these instances, it may be difficult for coworkers and managers to see the bullying occurring,” says Rabbi Printz.  “We need to look for changes in behavior, things like higher employee turnover, high absenteeism or sick days, “work to rule” attitude among employees, decreased unsolicited contributions from employees, and an increase of “problem employees” in performance reviews. The first four can also be exhibited by those with bullying in their immediate environment as they try to fly under the radar.”

What is the cost of bullying?

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research reports 40% of Canadian workers experience bullying on a weekly basis. This is higher than the US (who is at 35%) and the prevalence in Canada is rising.

Bullying leads to higher employee turnover as up to 40% of bullied employees resign and bully-related stress absenteeism accounts for 18.9 million work days each year in the UK and a corresponding 8-10% of the company’s profits according to Janet Fowler. Stress and anxiety from demotivation and distraction can decrease productivity up to 40%.

The Ontario Nursing Association (ONA) presentation “Bullying in the Workplace” lists nausea, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, irritability, depression, anxiety, and suicide as impacts of bullying. Careerbuilder.ca reports 45% of their respondents feel they are being bullied and a third of those have suffered health problems to put this into perspective. At the top of ONA’s list? Bullying “robs employees of the right to dignity at work.”

“At the end of the day, we want to be respected,” says Greg. “We want to work in a collaborative environment where we are supported and given the tools to succeed. This shift started with the Gen-X’s but has been accelerated by the Gen-Y’s, who do not want a boss but rather a coach and a mentor. There’s a reason we have seen such a decrease in the length of time each generation stays with a company. Gen-Y’s are willing to leave if their colleagues, but especially their managers, are not what they expected. Should they be bullied by a coworker or manager, emerging leaders will not hesitate to leave the toxic environment for one where they are respected.”

How can it be stopped?

The first things we think of are confronting the bully, filing a complaint with management or HR, or taking legal action. I was shocked when I read at how ineffective these methods are.

The “Effectiveness of Bullied Target Resolution Strategies”  found that all internal options, such as confronting the bully, talking to higher management, or filing a complaint with HR, had an effectiveness of under 5%. Unions had better success at 10%, but even filing a lawsuit only increased the effectiveness to a little over 16%. The 11% of perpetrators that experience negative consequences is the highest it’s been, yet nearly 78% of targets ended up no longer employed with their firm.

According to Rabbi Printz, “If you chose to fight it, increase your chances by documenting in detail every instance of bullying, find someone trustworthy to confide in, and then decide whether you want to talk to the bully first, since they might not think they are bullying you, or report it to HR. Of course, if you are experiencing physical or emotional stress, seek medical attention.”

“While policies and procedures can be effective and certainly should exist, prevention ultimately has to come from within both the organization and the individuals involved, ” adds Nicholas. “Having a collaborative organization where everyone supports each other allows for open dialogue to discuss situations and a zero-bully attitude is formed at the grass roots level as it were. However, creating that type of culture is very difficult in larger and more established organizations. This is where having that conversation with your employee and actually understanding what is causing the situation is so important. This may require using an outside source, like a coach, to work with both the target and the bully. If a solution can be found, it is not only an amazing learning opportunity for your employees, but will also save you money in the long run.”

Greg concludes “Bullying doesn’t happen when there’s the potential of consequence, but as we see above it’s difficult to implement this. Targets of bullying tend to have low self-esteem, passive communication, and prefer to withdraw than speak up as they fear the repercussions.  It is not enough to just stand up to your bully once, it has to be a consistent push back. To do this you need to have the communication tools and the assertiveness to stand your ground. It can be emotionally tiring and the process is challenging, which is where working with a coach is highly beneficial .”

In other words, we as leaders need to establish a culture of zero-tolerance, lead by example, and ensure that we supply our teams with the resources and support they need to take action should bullying occur. Organizations are made up of relationships, which in turn rely on communication to form and develop. If we can create a culture where everyone strives to have Adult-to-Adult conversations and are given the tools to raise their concerns, we will not only have engaged, empowered employees, but a bully-free environment.


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