Introduction to workplace bullying

In a way, being bullied is… well, sort of… a good thing. Far from being a loner or a weakling, the reason you are being targeted by a bully is probably because you are smarter, more competent, more poised and better-liked than the bully. You’re probably too independent and savvy to bow down to the bully’s ego trip and become a slave. All of this means the bully has decided that you are a threat, and has launched an all-out war against you to keep you in your place.

Knowing this is probably not comforting to you. After all, you’re the one who feels like throwing up on Sunday nights, or who uses your paid time off for “mental health” days to escape from misery at work. On these mental health days, you can hardly drum up enough enthusiasm to get out of bed, much less have fun with family or friends. Perhaps you spend a lot of time fantasizing about killing the bully or killing yourself, or your doctor has become concerned about your skyrocketing health problems. If so, you are not alone.

Thirty-seven percent of Americans reported being victims of bullying in this 2008 study from the Workplace Bullying Institute. (By the way, the Workplace Bullying Institute website is utterly fantastic, and should be one of your first stops on the web for validating your experience and beginning to do your research. A good portion of the research for this article came from there.)

What does workplace bullying look like?

Bullying is not:

  • Usually physical or sexual in nature, which the bully knows would get him or her into trouble.
  • Simply being rude. Rudeness – belching, spitting, nose picking, etc. – doesn’t cause undue stress. It’s just annoying.

Bullying is:

  • A form of emotional abuse.
  • Most of the time, done to you by your boss. Seventy-two percent of bullies are managers, supervisors, team leaders, or other people in positions of power.

Bullying might look like:

  • Being assigned the impossible task of doing a job without having the time or training to learn how to do it. The bully would then give you a poor job review.
  • Sabotaging your efforts to get your job done by throwing away your files, deleting your database, or intercepting important phone calls and emails.
  • Receiving snide comments about your appearance, background or lifestyle.
  • Hearing back-handed compliments, such as, “You’re smarter than you look.”
  • Hiding your personal effects (keys, wallet, jewelry, etc.) or work materials.
  • Calling you into the office and hurling accusations at you, or threatening such meetings and never holding them.
  • Trying to discredit you or turn others against you.
  • Constantly interrupting you so you can’t get any work done.

The list could go on and on. Bullies are insecure, but they are clever, and they can be infinitely creative in finding ways to torment you without overtly violating laws or policies.

Should I report bullying?

You might think filing a complaint with the human resources (HR) department or your boss’s boss would be the first logical thing to do, but statistics don’t support this course of action. There are no state laws that require employers to address workplace bullying.

As a result, according to this 2008 study, when employers were told about incidents of bullying, only 1.7% responded with the best case scenario: a fair investigation that resulted in protection for the target and consequences for the bully. In 53% of cases, the employers did nothing, and in 71% of cases, the target was actually retaliated against.

There are a couple of reasons for this disappointing response. Victims of bullying are often seen as “whiners” and “troublemakers,” while the bully is seen as producing a temporary increase of productivity from his or her employees – especially if the bully takes the time to “crop” business statistics so they present the bully in a favorable light. Also, hiring is often done according to the “who-you-know” rule. If the bully is a personal friend of the president of the company, it is going to be difficult for the president to hear bad things about his or her friend.

What can I do?

Here are some things you can do in the face of these dismal statistics. These suggestions are geared toward helping you feel more empowered while you’re in what is one of the most frustrating, hopeless situations that exists. Don’t underestimate the value of your mental, physical and emotional health in times of extreme stress like this.

  1. Take extra good care of yourself physically. Vigorous physical activity helps a lot in times of stress, so make it a priority to engage in your favorite exercise every day, or start an exercise program if you don’t have one.
  2. Remember, your attention is the same as your respect. Do your best to disrespect the bully by ignoring them, both at work and at home. It’s difficult to simply stop thinking about something, so find ways to distract yourself into thinking about something else instead.
  3. It is easy to be dismissed as a whiny troublemaker by HR and upper management. Nobody cares about your suffering, and worse, any documentation about your emotional state can be used against you. Carefully choose one or two people to whom you can vent, but do not air your feelings anywhere else.
  4. Be better than the bully in every way you can. Dress one notch nicer. Get to work ten minutes earlier. Keep your office space, your conduct, and yourself absolutely pristine. Learn to work around the bully and get your job done in spite of him or her. Your present conduct will pave the way toward better work in the future.
  5. Start your search for a new job. Seventy-seven percent of targets lose their jobs, either voluntarily or not, so have your escape route in place. Don’t be afraid to look for “fantasy jobs” or start implementing any dreams you’ve had for starting your own business at this time. Remember, these steps are about maintaining your own morale in the middle of a war zone.

If you want to expose the bully

  1. Start doing research. Take time off if you need to. Find out whether or not he or she has crossed a legal line and can be prosecuted. About a quarter of bullies violate discrimination laws. Look for internal company policies as well as state and national policies.
  2. Start gathering data about the economic impact of the bully on the company. Employers will sit up and pay attention if a bully’s actions are affecting the financial bottom line of the company. Put dollars and cents to the expenses of staff replacement, demoralization from under-staffing, absenteeism and lost productivity. Make the case that the bully is too expensive to keep.

A final word

Remember, you are not at fault for being bullied. Bullies didn’t become bullies overnight; they all have a history that can be exposed through proper vetting. The fault for bullying lies entirely with the employer, for hiring them in the first place (negligent hiring), and for ignoring complaints about the bully (negligent retention).

While the legal landscape looks grim for bullying targets right now, awareness is gradually increasing. Twenty-one states have anti-bully legislation in the pipelines, and hopefully soon we’ll begin to see states signing these proposals into law. Again, the Workplace Bullying Institute is an awesome resource. Start there, and good luck.

Featured photo credit: gun.?/Israel. via flickr.com

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