At age thirteen I was led to an epiphany. The year was 1976, and this is my story – – I was an eighth grader, rocking a pair of light blue converse all-stars, the perfect afro, and living large at Canterbury Jr. High School. That was the year of my (to this day) most infamous encounter with Clifford, a classmate and neighbor, who by that time was supposed to be a sophomore in high school. Clifford was two years and 80 pounds my senior. He was the town bully and had decided that I had to be taken down for no other reason than I was popular, my older brother was the town jock, and I refused to move from the seat across from him in the cafeteria so that he could put his substantial feet up in the chair I occupied. I steadfastly refused. He threw a fruit cocktail at me; not to be outdone, I hurled a sloppy joe sandwich at him, followed by the tray. We locked horns and I held on (literally) for the ride that followed.
The epiphany? I detest bullies! I realized that I’d much rather accept the consequence of the threat than be subjugated. It would be years before my next encounter with a bonafide bully. This time, it happened in my workplace, and the bully was my boss– a self-professed bully, who believed in military-grade command and control, who espoused daily how much he did “not like people,” and “I will backfill every position here if I have to.” It was a fruit cocktail and sloppy joe sandwich all over again! While I resisted his intimidation and fear tactics at every level, I was acutely aware of the effect that our adversarial relationship had on the team, and the organization as a whole. As a result of my experience as an HR leader, I am committed to creating an environment where people feel free to work and be creative without the fear of their colleagues, and most importantly their boss.
What is a workplace bully?
A bully by definition is “a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable,” and if you have encountered someone who fits that description within your organization you have a problem.
Workplace bullying can be the result of an individual or a company culture that allows or even perpetuates this kind of negative behavior. Studies show workplace bullies are predominately male. Usually, the bully is a person in a position of authority (a manager or supervisor) who feels in some way threatened by their target or suffers from a deficiency of emotional intelligence. Workplace bullying has a proven impact on productivity. It can also have a significant cost impact on organizations in the form of turnover, time away from work, and legal cost when the behavior crosses the line of harassment or hostility.
Workplace bullying can involve one or more persons in the workplace who targets another person with unreasonably abusive or intimidating treatment. Targets tend to be independent, competent employees that refuse to take on a subservient role. They may be better liked, more sociable, and non-confrontational, which are all factors that can put an employee in the crosshairs of a workplace bully. Since most employers do not specifically have an anti-bullying policy or have trouble defining the behavior, bullying incidents are only reported 38% of the time.
Identifying a Workplace Bully
A “tough” or demanding manager may have high expectations without exhibiting abusive behaviors. They demand while being respectful and fair. Bullying involves abuse or misuse of power that results in feelings of defenselessness and isolation of employees experiencing any of the following actions and behaviors:
- Shouting or swearing at an employee
- Verbal abuse targeted at an employee
- Being singled out for unjustified criticism or blame
- Being excluded/ socially isolated
- Being threatened with termination
- Misrepresenting an employee’s job performance or contribution
- Excessive micro-managing or being given unrealistic deadlines
- Having your work or contributions purposefully ignored
- Actions that embarrass or humiliate
There are also actions that may seem like bullying but may actually cross the line into harassment, which is considered illegal. For instance, negative comments or actions that are based on a person’s gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability or other legally protected status are considered harassment. Unlike bullying, harassment is illegal in the United States and gives the victim legal rights to stop the behavior.
How Workplace Bullying Impacts Your Employee
The Workplace Bullying Institute online survey, conducted in 2017, resulted in the following not-so-fun facts:
- 19% of Americans are bullied, another 19% witness it
- 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
- 60.4 million Americans are affected by it
- 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women
- 61% of bullies are bosses, the majority (63%) operate alone
- 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects
- 29% of targets remain silent about their experiences
- 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets
- 60% of coworker reactions are harmful to targets
- To stop it, 65% of targets lose their jobs
- 46% report worsening of work relationships, post-Trump election
Employees who are bullied are more likely to be less committed to work, feel disengaged in their job, experience job insecurity, have a high rate of absenteeism, and are more likely to utilize leave benefits. If that’s not enough to get your attention, 40 percent of targeted employees reported stress-related health issues including headaches, chronic neck pain, diabetes, sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and posttraumatic stress syndrome.
A middle school behavior? Yes. Nonetheless, bullying is becoming more pervasive in the workplaces from Washington DC to the Mexican border and beyond; and it comes at a cost to your organization and employees. Engage your HR team for an assessment of your workplace, consider taking a pulse survey, and implement a zero tolerance anti-bullying policy. Being proactive may go a long way towards creating a culture of engagement that fosters an emotionally healthy environment for everyone.
William has held consulting and strategic HR roles at Virginia Mason, Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Kaiser Permanente, and Williams-Sonoma. He has a proven track record for building employee satisfaction through building leadership competencies and strong collaborative HR partnerships with leadership teams that focus on the staff retention and fostering cultures of engagement. William regularly shared his insights and experience though for a number of Talent publications including Fistful of Talent, Career Crossroads (CXRWorks), and The HR Gazette and believes that an organization’s human capital is their most valuable asset.