Bullies, bullies and more bullies — I can’t get away from writing about this topic. I wish we could finally put an end to bullying behavior in schools, at work and everywhere else. It doesn’t help that we are seeing so many examples in the current presidential campaign.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying at work means “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference or sabotage which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.” The organization further notes, “it is driven by the bully’s or perpetrator’s need to control the targeted individual, and is initiated by bullies who choose their targets, timing, location, and methods. It can refer to acts of commission (doing things to others) or omission (withholding resources from others).”
A study by Career Builder identifies bullies as peers (46 percent) as well as managers (45 percent), and sometimes even higher-ups in the organization (25 percent). I also know of instances where the bullies were actually lower-ranked employees. Researchers have documented significant consequences of being bullied at work such as sleeplessness, ulcers, severe mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression, migraine headaches, relapse of previously controlled addictions, and even post traumatic stress disorder (according to the Workplace Bullying Institute). There are also serious outcomes for employers, including declines in employee morale and productivity, and increased health care costs.
We may think that only “weaklings” get bullied at work, but that is only be part of the picture. “Strong” people who are highly intelligent, well-liked and socially acceptable can also get bullied. Some people may be targeted because they are seen as threats to the perpetrators: A co-worker bullies you because you are closer to the boss or you are more knowledgeable or skilled and your co-worker is jealous of you. Maybe you are extremely helpful and a mentor to others, never thinking that you would be the object of bullying behavior due to your positive view of people in the workplace. You may not even know you are being bullied until you start to suffer some of the effects.
We all need to know the signs of bullying at work to identify when it is happening to us or to our employees. Leaders need to ensure that employees are working in a harassment-free environment.
Some of the signs that a person is being bullied at work include:
• Being excluded from team meetings or not being put on the schedule for important meetings (“Oh didn’t I put you on the boss’ schedule?”)
• Not receiving all of the necessary information to do the job effectively (“Oh, I didn’t give you that report last week… are you sure about that?”)
• Someone consistently taking credit for your work (“I created and organized the event” when it was a team project)
• Being gossiped about or someone spreading false rumors about you
• Someone sabotaging your work
• Someone belittling your work (“he/she only worked a few hours on this project”)
• Someone swearing or yelling at you in a public venue
• Scathing or inflammatory emails blaming you for a problem or issue
• Bringing up your mistakes over and over again (especially in front of others)
• Isolating you by not being accessible or limiting your access to others
• Micromanaging you and thereby showing distrust in your skills no matter how successful you have been
So, what can you do if you are being bullied or someone you know at work is being bullied?
• Examine the situation to determine whether it’s a pattern of behavior over time or one isolated incident.
• Try not to react to the bully. While this is difficult to do, it is important since bullies hope to get a reaction from you. If they don’t get the reaction they were hoping for, they may just quit bothering you. Of course, there is also the chance they might actually escalate their behaviors.
• Stand up to the bully if it is a co-worker or subordinate. Use an assertive (not overly emotional or aggressive tone) to point out their behaviors and your views of them. This could at least let them know you are aware of their behaviors and you will not tolerate them. Practice what you will say and how you will say it. Get someone to help you.
• Report the bullying to your supervisor, sticking to data and facts. If the bully is your supervisor, you’ll have to go to his/her supervisor.
• Get professional help if you have physical or mental symptoms as a consequence of the bullying. Your primary objective must be to get yourself in good health.
• Record your interactions with the person. Save their emails and take notes when you have meetings with them. Document any incidents, including dates, times and witnesses.
• If needed, get a mediator involved to bridge communications between you and the bully.
• Find out what your firm’s policy on bullying is (and the consequences). Many organizations have a zero-tolerance policy, but others do not.
• Plan your options if your organization does not take any action against the bully. What will you do?
Increasingly, bullying has become a major problem in organizations, and is directed at people at all levels and with all types of personalities. As leaders, we must be aware of what bullying is and how critical it is to take immediate action against it. Otherwise, we are condoning it to everyone around us. By ignoring the bullies, we may lose the very employees we would like to keep in the firm and destroy what positive morale we do have.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at email@example.com.