Banish the Workplace Bully

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Bullying doesn’t always end on the playground. How small businesses can recognize and eliminate workplace bullying.

Small businesses certainly have their hands full these days. Amid the many economic, regulatory, and competitive threats, it’s easy to overlook what sounds like a vague, not-in-my-backyard threat like workplace bullying. But workplace bullies are a very real and common drain on productivity and morale in many companies

Evaluating the balance of power in a conflict often is the best way to identify bullying versus teasing. If one party is afraid of the other, it’s more likely to be a bullying situation.

In fact, according to a 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying firsthand. Men and women are culprits as well as victims. Sixty-eight percent of bullying is same-gender harassment. When women are the bullies, they target other women in 80 percent of cases.

Workplace bullying can come in many forms, but the goal of bullies is generally to gain power or elevate their status by belittling or putting down others. Many children who were bullied become bullies as adults. In the workplace, bullies might try to humiliate targets, spread rumors or gossip, or in extreme cases, stalk or threaten targets or attempt to steal or damage property or work products. Much like children and teens, adult bullies also might recruit secondary adults who don’t want to be on the bully’s bad side and who will support the bully’s efforts to harm targets, thus further isolating victims. Adult bullies often have had decades to develop their patterns of behavior.

In the past bullying issues were, at best, addressed haphazardly and, at worst, swept under the rug. Now it’s taken more seriously, which is good. However, it’s also created confusion, because bullying has become a catchall for all kinds of peer conflicts, such as teasing. Someone might think it’s all in fun to tease a co-worker and might not realize the behavior is being perceived as bullying.

Bullying is defined as behavior that is intentional, aggressive, and negative, carried out repeatedly against one or more targets. Bullying occurs in relationships where there is an imbalance of power between the parties involved. Evaluating the balance of power in a conflict often is the best way to identify bullying versus teasing. If one party is afraid of the other, it’s more likely to be a bullying situation.

The impact of bullying can be deep and long lasting on the victims and their employers. In the short-term, targets of bullies might experience health problems such as headaches, difficulty concentrating, depression, and sleep and anxiety issues. They are also more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. Victims might fear meetings and office activities or even fear going to the workplace. Their work performance often suffers. Even after the bullying has ended or the target changes jobs, the damage remains. Former targets might remain fearful, have difficulty forming trusting relationships, and often lack confidence.

The effects of bullying can have large financial repercussions for the victims’ employers. Costs associated with turnover, lost productivity, absenteeism, and potential litigation can add up to hefty sums.

So what can targets and companies do? Adults who are being bullied at work should document all incidents in detail and report bullying behavior to a supervisor or human resources department. They also can report it to other authorities, such as their local Human Rights Commission. Other tactics for dealing with bullies are to avoid or ignore the bully. This may not work and could make the bully work harder to harass the victim. As a harsh last resort, if the situation isn’t improving and the strain on their health or work performance becomes too much, victims might need to consider changing jobs. In the long run, it will probably be the only way for the victim to experience relief.

Businesses have a duty to create and maintain a healthy, productive environment. That means being aware of—and promptly addressing— any threat to the safety and morale of workers. Therefore, companies should:

  • Create an organization-wide educational system for both employees and management, educating how to spot and eliminate workplace bullying.
  • Organize a system for safe reporting for victims.
  • Document any concern or complaint, and take it very seriously. Be ready to take action.
  • Demonstrate commitment by allocating time and funds to the program.

Businesses, whether large or small, need to promote and maintain a healthy, productive workplace, which means being aware of anything jeopardizing the safety and morale of their employees—including bullying. Implementing organization-wide systems to educate employees and management about how to spot and eliminate workplace bullying is crucial. Safe processes to report bullying also should be in place, and any concerns need to be documented and taken seriously. Time and funds allocated to address and prevent workplace bullying will always be well spent; your business will avoid potentially large losses, and your workforce will feel protected and valued.


About Tara Fishler 1 Article
Tara Fishler is a conflict resolution specialist providing mediation services and training to schools, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. She is the founder of Customized Training Solutions, a New York-based consulting firm that offers interactive training on a variety of topics related to communication and conflict resolution. She is currently a volunteer mediator for the Westchester Human Rights Commission and arbitrator for the Better Business Bureau. She is a non-practicing attorney in New York and New Jersey. Currently, she serves on the board of directors of the New York State Dispute Resolution Association.

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