Category Archives: Working at OHSU

Workplace Bullying — Part 2: Digging Deeper

 

Why Does Workplace Bullying Happen?

In 2012, the Workplace Bullying Institute did a poll asking why workplace bullying happens. The majority of people experiencing bullying blame the bully who is responsible, which is a totally normal response. However, the poll also found that 56 percent of responses to why workplace bullying happens  were about the workplace environment and culture. Let’s dig deeper into what some of those issues are.

A big part of solving any problem is recognizing what has caused it, but most companies and organizations have no direct policy on workplace bullying. What does that mean? It means that many workplaces do not even recognize bullying as an issue. Employers often respond to accusations of bullying by relying on “code of conduct” policies. As you may be aware, these policies are often fluid, (more like guidelines); for the most part, they are not legally binding. In addition, while companies like to say that everyone plays by the same rules, these policies are administered by bosses who can manipulate them however they like. So, a boss who is a yeller might just be labeled a “hard motivator” or someone who brings a lot of “intensity” to the job. Until employers attempt to address bullying behaviors through contract language or hard policy, a lack of recognition of the issue will continue to plague workers and allow abuse to continue.

 

In our first article in this series, we noted that the workplace bully is most often an employee of a higher status, and likely a boss. When a boss is the bully, it’s fair to say many people will look at that situation and think, “Oh, that’s how you get ahead here” or “The boss is doing this — it must be okay.” In fact, one of the top responses to the WBI survey on why bullying happens, was that “bullies are not punished, they thrive.” Not only do most companies not have enforceable policies on bullying in the workplace, most people polled think bullies are the ones who thrive in a workplace.

Can you guess how many states have laws making workplace bullying illegal? If you guessed zero, you are correct. Not a single state in the nation currently has any laws against workplace bullying. (There are laws about the harassment of workers in protected classes, but those are different and do not provide the universal protection that is needed against workplace bullying.) Not only do few workplaces recognize bullying as an issue, not a single state has given workers protections against it.

Power, by its very nature, can be a corrupting force in any workplace (and elsewhere). As long as organizations are run as top-down enterprises, there will almost always be an element of those with some power and control abusing that power. Sadly, in the short-term, bullying can be an effective management strategy to control the workplace. However, the long-term cost to workers’ mental and physical health and to organizational integrity is usually not worth the short-term gain.

What Does Workplace Bullying Look Like?

 Much worksite bullying looks like a slightly grown-up version of the playground variety. There tend to be two kinds of bullying: overt and covert. Overt bullying includes yelling, screaming and pushing, in a manner that doesn’t really hide the behavior. Covert bullying is a bit slyer — manipulating a work group, making hurtful jokes, giving an employee an assignment that’s impossible to complete and otherwise playing mind games. In general, dealing with an overt bully is far easier — the bullying behavior is often out in the open, so it is harder for someone to deny that it’s happening or for an organization to look away. Covert bullying, on the other hand, is obviously much tougher to identify and, therefore, harder for an organization to deal with.

The Australian Human Rights Commission compiled the follow list of workplace bullying behavior:

  • Repeated hurtful remarks or attacks or making fun of your work or you as a person
  • Sexual harassment (particularly unwelcome touching, sexually explicit comments and requests that make you uncomfortable)
  • Exclusion or or stopping you from working with people or taking part in activities that relate to your work
  • Mind games, ganging up on you or other types of psychological harassment
  • Intimidation (making you feel less important and undervalued)
  • Assignment of pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
  • Assignment of impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided
  • Deliberate alteration of your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you
  • Withholding of information you need for getting your work done properly
  • Physical abuse: pushing, shoving, tripping or grabbing you in the workplace
  • Attacks or threats with equipment, knives, guns or any other object that can be turned into a weapon
  • Initiation or hazing (where you are made to do humiliating or inappropriate things in order to be accepted as part of the team)

This is not a “be-all and end-all” list, but it is a good starting point.

How Does Bullying Impact Workers and Society?

 The impact of workplace bullying on the victim and on society as a whole is serious, but the economics are fundamentally hard to calculate. Let’s focus on the impact to the individual first and begin to draw the larger connections from there.

An employee being bullied in the workplace is dealing with an incredible amount of stress. Unfortunately, people who are under high stress are more susceptible to a variety of health issues, particularly mental health issues. Those under prolonged stress can experience damage to memory and emotional regulation. Again, the Workplace Bullying Institute surveyed those who have been bullied at work and found reports of the following health issues:

  • Debilitating anxiety (80%)
  • Panic attacks (52%)
  • Clinical depression (new or exacerbation of a previously controlled condition (49%)
  • Post-traumatic stress from deliberate human-inflicted abuse (30%)

Workplace Bullying — Part 1: The Facts

When you hear the word “bully,” an image almost certainly pops into your head. Whether it’s a cinematic version of the classic school-yard bully torturing his preteen peers, the popular kid in high school who tortured you about a bad hair day in the fifth grade or a hulking senior who made you and your lunch money his personal ATM on a near daily basis, the image of a bully is almost universal in our society. It is also mostly associated with adolescence — like the examples above or the very real issue of cyberbullying — and many would like us to think it’s not something we’ll have to deal with once we escape high school. However, as many folks know, nothing could be further from the truth. Bullying takes place at every level of society and the workplace is no different. This article series will address the topic of workplace bullying.

What Is a Workplace Bully?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct such as:

  • Threats, humiliation or intimidation
  • Work interference/sabotage that prevents work from getting done
  • Verbal abuse

If the above statements apply to your normal workday, then you are probably either watching workplace bullying happen or having it happen to you. Some may say, “Yeah, I’m sure it happens some places or to a few people here and there, but it’s not that big of an issue, right?” Wrong.

A 2014 survey by the WBI revealed that 27 percent of workers had direct experience with bullying at the workplace and 72 percent of workers were aware of workplace bullying happening in their worksites. However, disturbingly, 72 percent of employers denied, discounted, encouraged, rationalized or defended workplace bullying. Lastly, 47 percent of workers said they were negatively affected by bullying, either as the victim or a witness. When one looks at these numbers, it’s hard to argue that this country doesn’t have a problem with worksite bullying.

Who Is the Workplace Bully and Who Is the Target?

We know what workplace bullying is and that it’s a big problem. What we don’t know is who is doing it. Again, our friends at the WBI provide some insight. The majority of workplace bullying comes directly from bosses — 56 percent, in fact. (Only 11 percent of bullying is directed from workers to bosses.) That leaves us with a third of bullying happening from peer to peer. This is a somewhat flawed number, as it does not account for the social hierarchies of the workplace; for example, a nurse bullying a CNA would be considered peer-to-peer bullying, even though a nurse typically has more power in the workplace than a CNA. One thing to remember about workplace bullying is that individuals across class lines may take part in it, but the culture of a workplace is always set by the bosses, not the workers.

The WBI’s research also shows that workplace bullies tend to be men far more than women (69 percent compared to 31 percent). A lot of societal and cultural factors account for this number. The one that is easiest to understand is that more men hold positions of power in worksites than women. This matters, because if you hold a position of power over someone, you are more likely to exploit it. While the majority of bullies are men, the majority of victims are women. Women are 50 percent more likely to be targeted by workplace bullying than men. Again, there are a lot of reasons why this may be the case. For one, men typically do not report bullying at the same rate as women and instead use a “tough-it-out” approach. Additionally, if you break the numbers down along racial/ethnic lines, the impact of bullying on people of color is sadly higher than it is on their white co-workers.

By now you must surely be thinking, “Why don’t people just report it, or get a lawyer and sue?” That’s a great question. The reason is that 80 percent of workplace bullying is not illegal. Only bullying related to protected classes is illegal. So, for example, if your manager bullies you about being gay or for having a disability, you can seek some legal protections; if s/he bullies you just because they saw you as an easy target, no law has your back.

Workplace bullying is real; in fact, it’s an epidemic problem in this country. However, there are people and systems that see a short-term benefit to its prevalence. What benefit is that? Well, it’s all about power and control.

In the second part of this article series, we will explore why workplace bullying happens, what it looks like and how it impacts working people. If you want to know more about workplace bullying or the data mentioned in this article, visit the Workplace Bullying Institute at www.workplacebullying.org