As soon as I heard my friend’s voice I could tell she was upset. Over the phone, she described an awful scene that had just happened at her workplace. Her new boss called a staff meeting and began one by one to humiliate each sales person, dishing out personal insults. “He’s a bully and everyone at the office is miserable,” she said.
My friend is a single mother who can’t afford to be without a job. For now, she plans to endure the insults and humiliation. But some of her co-workers have started a desperate attempt to find another job.
In an economic environment where jobs still are scarce, standing up to a workplace bully has become difficult. Experts are calling workplace bullying an epidemic, citing several recent studies that confirm the seriousness of the problem in the United States. One government study says workers are bullied in one out of every four workplaces.
“Sometimes good people bully,” says Gary Namie, who operates the Workplace Bullying Institute in Seattle. “They become more and more aggressive at work because it gets reinforced. Employers who are indifferent are rewarding it.”
Although unprofessional, workplace bullying is not illegal in the United States. There is no law that prohibits managers from threatening, insulting or mocking employees or making their work lives miserable. Some bullies hide under the guise of being a tough boss.
Teresa Daniel, author of Stop Bullying at Work and professor of the Human Resource Leadership Programs at Sullivan University, has studied the distinction. “A bully makes it personal and vindictive,” Daniel said. “With a tough boss, most employees said he’s not a nice person, but his motives were right — to make the organization profitable and strong.”
Employers may not realize that bullies take a terrible toll within an organization. Their behavior creates stress on employees, increases absenteeism and leads to turnover. Oddly enough, bullies can be strong performers and often do get results because they push people to the wall. But those workers usually are biding time while looking for an exit.
Brenda, an administrative employee at a Miami government agency, says her female boss torments her by questioning almost every accomplishment and rolling her eyes at anything she says in a staff meeting. “It’s wrecked my work and my home life. I dread going into the office,” she says.
Women, it turns out, are other women’s own worst enemies at work. Female bullies target women in 80 percent of the cases. Male workplace bullies, by contrast, tend to be equal-opportunity offenders, targeting both men and women.
Susan Strauss, a consultant and expert in organizational leadership, says women bully in a much more subtle way than men. They typically sabotage each other’s work, make disparaging comments, taunt, gossip, roll their eyes, and give out the silent treatment.
“It has the same negative effect on the work environment as more overt forms of aggression,” said Strauss who is conducting workshops for companies on female-on-female bullying. Because female forms of bullying are generally more covert, higher-ranking male managers are less likely to catch on to the misconduct or know how to handle it, Strauss has found.
Experts say the best way to stand up to a bully is document every incident and every detail, including who else was present. Then, show the documentation to an objective person of authority, maybe even include the cost of turnover or lost productivity. Namie at the Workplace Bullying Institute explains that getting a higher-up to discipline a bully is difficult. Typically, he or she has the protection of a higher ranking supervisor at the company who says something like this: “That’s Bob you’re talking about. I love Bob. Bob does what I want. Who are you to complain?”
For recovering bullies, Namie recommends identifying another manager who has a style totally different from yours. Engage them, ask them for feedback about your style and look to them for suggestions on how you can manage differently.
As the problem gains national attention, legislation known as the Healthy Workplace Bill has been proposed in 16 states, but none have passed it as law. The bill forbids a health-harming “abusive work environment” and requires medical documentation to prove workers claims of bullying.
Kathy Kane, senior vice president of Talent Management at Adecco Group North America, believes employers don’t understand the extent of the problem in their organizations. Workloads are building and bullying is more likely to be tolerated because managers don’t have time to deal with it, she says. She recommends exit interviews.
“Workplace bullying is costly to a company, but employers don’t understand those costs,” Kane said. “Good people leave and there’s a cost to losing good people.”
By Cindy Krischer Goodman
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal, a provider of news and advice on work/life balance. Visit www.worklifebalancingact.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.