Workplace Bullying: Causes, Costs and Correction

  • 4
  • September 2, 2014

Dr. Stephen Carter, C.Psych.
Dr. Shirley Vandersteen, C.Psych.

Definition:

Workplace bullying is a form of violence in the corporate world. While workplace bullying rarely involves acts of physical aggression, the most extreme form can result in serious physical injury or death. Most adults know that it is a criminal act to physically assault another person so the majority of office bullies use non-physical means to threaten or intimidate subordinates or co-workers.

Corporate bullies primarily engage in psychological violence. Workplace bullying is defined as “interpersonal hostility that is deliberate, repeated and sufficiently severe as to harm the targeted person’s health or economic status” (Gary Namie, 2003). Bullying includes those physical and emotional behaviours that are aggressive, often intentional, controlling, and hurtful. These behaviours include verbal or non-verbal forms of communication, deliberate acts of character assassination or sabotage, or other strategic acts of covert or overt hostility.

Bullying creates a climate of harassment and fear. The targets of bullying usually stay silent, feel ashamed and humiliated because they are being controlled, feel powerless to change things, and feel isolated and alone. The targets most often believe that if they report the bully their situation will get worse, they will be blamed for the situation, or they will lose their job.

It is important to note that isolated incidents of psychological violence, like a co-worker screaming at you during a conflict, are inappropriate but are not considered bullying. The behaviours must be repeated over time. In addition, supervisors do have the right to change a person’s shift, or institute a performance plan with individual employees if these actions are a part of normal operating procedures or if they are necessary to meet operational requirements.

Who is Being Bullied?

The common stereotype of a bullied person is someone who is weak, an oddball or a loner. On the contrary, the targets chosen by an adult bully will very often be capable, successful, dedicated staff members who are well-liked by co-workers. Bullies are most likely to pick on people who demonstrate a co-operative and a non-confrontational interpersonal style. The bully considers the high performance of others at work to be a threat and is determined to cut the good worker down.

The abusive behaviour of the office bully may be targeted towards one individual or it may be directed at the work team in general. If the aggressive and obnoxious behaviour remains unchecked, the whole work group may start to walk on eggshells and suffer the ill effects of this very nasty and destructive form of psychological violence.

The Impact of Bullying on the Targeted Individual

Bullied employees waste between 10 and 52 per cent of their time at work. Research shows they spend time defending themselves and networking for support, thinking about the situation, feeling unmotivated and stressed, and taking sick leave due to stress-related illnesses.

People that are targeted by office bullies suffer a wide range of stress-related health problems. The psychological effects include: debilitating anxiety and panic attacks, significant sleep disturbance, cognitive dysfunction including difficulty with short-term memory, lack of concentration and lack of focus, and symptoms of major depression and/or posttraumatic stress disorder.

Targets of bullying live in fear, shame, and isolation. They worry they will be fired; they feel humiliated and suffer from social isolation; and they begin to dread coming to work each day. The long-term effects of this type of prolonged stress has a significant negative impact on physical health and can lead to physical exhaustion, heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, excessive weight loss/gain, and other damaging physical symptoms.

People who are targeted by office bullies are unwilling or unable to respond to the abusive behaviour of the bully with aggression. The painful situation is most often endured for months or years until the negative effects take their toll. The target usually tries several different ways to deal with the bully. The target may tolerate the behaviour and placate the bully by giving in, agreeing to submit to the control of the bully, and doing what they are told. The target may try to avoid the bully by physically hiding or staying close to another co-worker or the boss and hoping that the bully will not be abusive in the presence of others. Or, the target may ask for a reassignment of duties, a transfer to another area, or just silently go on a medical leave or seek employment elsewhere.

If the target does try to be assertive with the bully, the aggressive behaviour of the bully is likely to escalate and the domination/abuse will be more relentless and public. Most targets cannot withstand this type of psychological assault. If the target does not back down, the bully may become physically aggressive, appeal to higher levels to try to get the target fired, or the bully may request a move to a different area.

The target’s family and friends also suffer the results of daily stress and eventual physical and/or emotional breakdown. Marriages suffer or are destroyed under the pressure of the target’s anxiety and anger. Friendships cool because the bullied employee becomes obsessive about the situation and cannot focus on anything else.

The Impact of Bullying on the Organisation

Workplace bullies create a tremendous liability for the employer. An office bully poisons the work environment and contributes to increased stress-related absenteeism, general health and safety problems, and decreased productivity. An office bully is likely to create a mass departure of good employees out of the organisation. Talented people know which organisations to stay away from as the word travels fast among employee groups. An organisation that allows an employee to bully another person will not attract quality candidates.

Employers are beginning to recognise the detrimental impact that bullying has on the workplace and are taking steps to make bullying as unthinkable as sexual harassment or drunkenness in the workplace. They are no longer willing to pay the price of allowing these corporate tyrants to dominate the workplace.

The business case for strict anti-bullying policies is compelling. Employers know that a healthy work environment is an economically successful work environment. Potential benefits include a more peaceful workplace with higher productivity and better decision-making; less time lost to destructive interpersonal interactions, sick leave, or self-defensive paperwork; higher staff retention and retention of high calibre employees; lower disability and health premium costs; and a reduced risk of legal action.

Workplace Factors That Increase the Likelihood of Bullying Behaviours

A work environment that accepts aggressive behaviour or tolerates a high degree of interpersonal conflict and fails to recognise these as organisational problems.
Organisations that experience abrupt or ongoing change.
A highly competitive work environment that pits employees against one another to increase productivity.
High levels of workplace stress related to extreme demands on employees and long hours of work.
Insecure employment (contributes to increasing fear and competition).
Poor leadership resulting in a chaotic work environment (role confusion/conflicts, lack of clear lines of authority or responsibility) and/or poor relationships between management and employees.
Inadequate or absent values statements, policies, and procedures regarding employer expectations of workplace behaviour.
Ineffective processes for managing and resolving interpersonal conflicts and/or complaints about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
An informal group norm that supports ridiculing or isolating or otherwise punishing an employee who accesses the formal grievance processes.
Who are the Bullies?

Over 80 per cent of bullies are bosses, some are co-workers and a minority bully the higher-ups in an organization. A bully is equally likely to be a man or a woman. Office bullying is a grab for control and dominance by an insecure, socially and/or professionally inadequate person. Office bullying is an exercise of power by “controlling competitors who exploit their cooperative targets” (Gary Naime, 2005).

Office bullies tend to be lacking in confidence, exhibit poor interpersonal skills and have little empathy for others. Their behaviour is often fear-driven; they are afraid of losing, of being rejected by others, of failing, or of being found to be inadequate. They turn this insecurity outward, finding satisfaction in dominating others and in their ability to attack and diminish the capable people around them.

A workplace bully subjects the target to unjustified criticism and trivial fault-finding. The bully’s behaviour is often unpredictable; he or she can be overly kind and solicitous one day and angry, demanding, and aggressive the next day. In addition, the office bully frequently humiliates the target, especially in front of others. The message is clear – if you side with or support the target, you could be the next target. Blatant or veiled threats against the target will be made when there are no witnesses. The bully will distort or deny facts and even outright lie to prove the target is wrong or to get his or her own way.

If the bully is the target’s superior, he or she may: set the target up for failure by setting unrealistic goals or deadlines, or denying necessary information and resources. The bully will either overload the target with work or take all work away (sometimes replacing proper work with demeaning tasks); or increase responsibility while removing authority placing the target in a no-win situation.

Regardless of specific tactics, the intimidation is driven by the bully’s need to reduce anxiety by building him/herself up and controlling others. Bullies think they are always right; they blame others when something goes wrong, refuse to apologise or take responsibility for problems, and believe that anyone who disagrees with them is the enemy. The bully is self-centred and believes that other’s behaviour is about them; they take things personally, are somewhat paranoid, and believe the worst about others instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

What Organizations Can Do

Employers can deal with the problem of workplace bullying in the same way that they deal with other Employee Relations issues like harassment or discrimination. Employers must recognize that bullying is a serious problem for the organization as well as for the individual who is being targeted.

Too often employers dismiss the issue as an interpersonal conflict between employees. If there is a bully in the work environment, everyone is being hurt by this behaviour, not just the target. If you suspect that there is a bully in your organisation but people are unwilling to come forward with a complaint, then you can bring in a consultant to do an independent work environment assessment. A work environment assessment can provide the employer with a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the employee work group and identify barriers to a healthy and productive work environment. An office bully is an example of such a barrier.

Secondly, employers must declare bullying to be unacceptable behaviour. This is a value statement that must be clearly articulated throughout all levels of the organisation. Bullying behaviours must be formally and explicitly defined and communicated to all employees. Employers must create policies and procedures that reflect the importance of this issue. Employers can be proactive by teaching employees the skills of effective communication, assertive behaviour, and respectful workplace behaviour.

Third, the employer must establish a clear and credible system for receiving and investigating complaints, and effective processes for documenting and dealing with the bullying issue. Complaints must be investigated in a timely manner, while maintaining discretion and confidentiality and protecting the rights of all individuals involved. It is as important to deal with the bullying behaviour, as it is to ensure that the policies and procedures are not used frivolously or maliciously.

Finally, organizations must develop graduated intervention strategies to address the bullying complaint. The goal is to eliminate the bullying behaviour, improve employee relationships, and create a healthy work environment for all employees. Interventions will likely be specific to the needs of a particular and multi-faceted in nature. These interventions can include: coaching with the bully to raise awareness and to develop a behavioural change contract; incremental sanctions leading to termination of employment for repeated episodes of bullying; teaching assertiveness, communication, and respectful workplace behaviour skills to all employees to empower the work group; and/or counselling for the target or the team to mitigate the detrimental impact of the bullying experience.

In addition, those in positions of power must be given leadership training to ensure that power is not deliberately or inadvertently abused. The development of strong interpersonal skills at all levels is fundamental to good management and a healthy workplace.

What You Can Do If You Are Being Bullied

  • Acknowledge that this is happening and decide that you will do something about it.
  • Report the behaviour to the appropriate manager in your workplace.
  • Keep a record of the bullying. Take notes down on time, date, location and any witnesses.
  • Address your concerns with the bully, if suitable, and ask them to stop.
  • Seek help and advice at work. In the workplace, you may have a workplace bullying policy and procedure, a contact officer, human resources manager, or manager who can assist to resolve the matter either informally or formally.
  • Seek external advice. People you can contact include your Employee Assistance Program for help and support, your union representative for assistance in ensuring that your organisation addresses the problem, an employment lawyer to obtain legal advice, or a government agency such as the Human Rights Commission. The Canada Safety Council Website (www.safety-council.org/info/OSH/bullies.html) has excellent information and many links such as www.nobullyforme.org.

If You See Others Being Bullied, You Can Help

  • Report the behaviour to the appropriate manager in your workplace.
  • Advise the bully to cease the behaviour (if you feel safe doing so).
  • Never participate in or endorse the bullying behaviour.
  • Show constructive support to colleagues affected – tell him or her that you see what is happening and that this behaviour must not be tolerated.
  • Seek help and advice at work if you feel upset or angry about the bullying by contacting your Employee Assistance Program, Human Resources, or your manager.
  • You do not have to tolerate bullying at work – you have choices. Get some good support and advice, talk to the leaders in your organisation, and try to make a positive change in your work environment. Hopefully, the leaders in your organisation will do their part to resolve the problem. The very worst thing you can do is to do nothing at all. It is your responsibility to take care of your health and well-being; failing to do so will result in day-to-day misery at work, damaging effects in your personal life, and serious physical and psychological consequences. If your organisation is not willing to deal with a bully in the work place, then start planning your exit strategy to move to another department or to another company.

References

Canada Safety Council (Website: www.safety-council.org/info/OSH/bullies.html)
No Bully For Me (Website: www.nobullyforme.org)
Workplace Bullying: Escalated Incivility, Ivey Business Journal, 2003 European Agency for Safety and Health at Work