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Bullying at Work
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All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope. Sir Winston, Churchill
Bullying at work is the repeated, malicious verbal mistreatment of a Target (the recipient) by a harassing bully (the perpetrator) that is driven by the bully's desire to control the Target. That control is typically a mixture of cruel acts of deliberate humiliation or interference and the withholding of resources and support preventing the Target from succeeding at work. The most important defining characteristic is that the bully's actions damage the Target's health and self-esteem, relations with family and friends, economic livelihood, or some combination of them all.
Bullying encompasses all types of mistreatment at work. All harassment is bullying as long as the actions have the effect, intended or not, of hurting the Target. Without harm felt, the tyrant's maneuvers are not bullying.
Perpetrators are women and men who torment women and men of all races and ages, in all workplaces, regardless of size or type of business.
Though bullying begins as one-on-one harassment, troubles for Targets are complicated by each inappropriate or inadequate response to the cruelty by employers, institutional helpers, and the legal system. All contribute to sustaining the cruelty. Remarkably, the organization's resources are predictably marshaled in support of the bully instead ofthe wronged Target. From the Target's perspective, the work world has colluded against her to do her harm.
Unchecked one-on-one bullying quickly escalates into a hostile, poisoned workplace where everyone suffers. If ignored long enough, the entire organization is placed at risk, facing preventable trauma or litigation.
BullySpeak is a vocabulary that we deliberately choose to use so that we neither offend crusaders for other social justice causes nor confuse the individuals we attempt to support through the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.
Female is the preferred gender
We use the pronoun "she" throughout the text to describe both the Target, the recipient of mistreatment at work, and the bully, the perpetrator. We need to expand harassment's definitional boundaries beyond the narrow "protected class" Equal Employment Opportunity categories of female, minority, older, and disabled workers. Also, the majority of advice seekers who contact us are women who are stalked by women bullies. We are not ignoring men. Male Targets, a large 30 percent minority, need only mentally substitute pronouns throughout the text. They call ask a woman for help seeing the world from the other side; she's been doing it for a lifetime.
Targets and bullies
Out of respect to Targets, with whom we sympathize, we always capitalize the word "Targets." We capitalize the word "bullies" if the word happens to begin a sentence.
Targets merely had the bad fortune to run into a bully too lazy to acquire the insight about her personal list of deficiencies, her lack of self-esteem. A Target drifts in, and hopefully out of, the crosshairs of the bully's scope. Target status can be temporary or it can drone on for years.
Targets, not victims
Bullies select Targets to harm. Targets are recipients of unrelenting verbal assaults that cut to the core of the Target's being. Over time, the Target's personality gets trampled, bent out of recognition even to herself. When Targets see themselves as victims, two undesirable things can happen:
1. if they have a personal history of being exploited by others in their family or in other relationships, victimhood lures them back to a painful time. Once there, victims find it harder to act to reverse their situation. Bullying is certainly re-traumatizing for those with prior experience. This affects the intensity of the damages done; it does not justify the bully's actions nor relieve the employer of responsibility for putting the Target in harm's way and not protecting her when the bullying is reported.
2. victimhood begets powerlessness, helplessness, and an inability to change matters for the better.
BullyProofing is about reclaiming dignity and self-respect. We are eternally optimistic that the situations Targets find themselves in get better.
Targets Don't Deserve or
Want What They Get
Bullies Are Liars and Cowards!
Bullying, not abuse
Abusers have victims. Battered spouses and children deserve to have the terms abuse and victim reserved for them because they suffer physical violence unlike Targets of bullying. Workplace bullying involves abuse of power, but we shy away from using the term abuse whenever possible.
Cheerleaders for corporate competition are quick to denigrate victims as deserving their fate. Wrong! Bullied Targets no more like the torment they endure than rape victims are likely to invite the rapist. The anti-bullying movement is not asking for pity from the morally bankrupt.
Folks in Britain coined the phrase "Workplace Bullying." It is an instantly recognizable term to Americans. Every time we stand in line at a store, sit at an airport, or talk to a reporter, we get to hear someone's memory of torment at work, either theirs or a friend's. It is that common, a "silent epidemic" ready to be pushed into the light of day (or to face press and media scrutiny as defined in the modern world).
BullyingFamiliar Yet Different
Illegal sexual harassment is a special type of harassment. All sexual harassment is also bullying. Bullying, defined as "generalized workplace abuse," was four times more prevalent than sexual harassment in a study of several work-related groups at the University of Illinois at Chicago (J. Richman, American Journal of Public Health, 1999).
Bullying is rarely illegal. Either the law does not apply at all or the legal options make the case too difficult to build. Harassment or discriminatory treatmentif unrelated to gender, race, age, or any of the other Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act) protected class categoriesare invisible in the eyes of current U.S. law.
"Protection" is a misnomer. Laws on the books are routinely ignored in the American workplace anyway. Sexual harassment and the hostile work environment are pervasive. The hostility continues despite millions of dollars invested in corporate training claiming to prevent or stop it. The attitude seems to be a challenge to "sue me" by employers who can outspend and outlast any lone plaintiff.
The presence of a law simply gives one the "right to sue." In turn, that means placing yourself in financial jeopardy at the hands of an attorney, pro-corporate judge, or jury whose decisions can be overruled easily over the course of several years. Even when the settlement or award is paid, the payoff hardly justifies prolonging the agony that bullying started. Legal solutions are rarely satisfying.
Schoolyard bullyingthe torment of one child by anotheris often compared to workplace bullying. Both types share common underlying principlesthe desperate grab for control by an insecure inadequate person, the exercise of power through the humiliation of the Target. School-age bullies, if reinforced by cheering kids, fearful teachers, or ignorant administrators, grow up as dominating people. If it works for them, there is no reason to change. At work as adults, they do what they do bestbully others. An unknown percentage of workplace bullies have a lifelong record of disrespecting the needs of others. Of course, the cues given off in a super-competitive workplace will draw out the dark side of many others who were not bullies in a prior life, witnesses perhaps, but rarely Targets.
The stakes for workplace bullying are more serious than in the school. Bullying threatens the economic livelihood not only of the Target but the Target's family. When a bully decides to capriciously untrack a Target's career, years of investment in terms of time and money are at risk. Finally, the most important differencethe one that distinguishes our approach to solutionsis that the child Target must have the help and support of third-party adults to reverse the conflict. Bullied adults have the primary responsibility for righting the wrong, for engineering a solution. When others intervene on their behalfas when a more aggressive, well-intentioned spouse takes over finding the solutionthe Target suffers additional consequences from giving away her independence.
Incivilities and rudeness rarely trigger stress in the people who experience them. Toe picking, knuckle cracking, belching, and nostril reaming are all offensive and undignified. However, they reflect only on the socialization of the picker, cracker, belcher, and reamer. It's not bullying until the bully does something to the Target. If the bully picks the Target's toes (against her wishes) or picks her nose (without permission) and this offensive behavior hurts her emotionally, it could be bullying. Social mistakes not expressly done to affect another person may be cute to talk about, but they do not qualify as bullying according to our criteria.
Chris Pearson, Ph.D., is an "incivilities" researcher. Her survey of workers who admitted they were the targets of rudeness or disrespect revealed that 12 percent felt compelled to leave their jobs. Our survey of bullied Targets demonstrated that 75 percent had to leave their jobs to make the bullying go away.
When employers complain of incivility, they can dodge responsibility for establishing the toxic culture at work. It is easy then to blame troubles on the conflicting personality of "those" employees.
Workplace violence certainly grabs headlines, but they are misleading. Workers face the greatest risk of assault from customers, clients, robbers, scorned lovers, and strangers. Violence between workers, of the same or different rank, accounted for only 11 percent of workplace homicides, according to the University of California-Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program's 1997 findings. How is bullying related to this dramatic, albeit rare, worker-on-worker violence?
A bully-tolerant workplace can be quite pathological, gripped in fear, with everyone, including management, too petrified to hold the bully accountable for her unforgivable behavior. The bully routinely practices psychological violence against her Target. Yet, she rarely has to resort to physical violence or threats of it to satisfy her control needs. Violent outbursts follow frustration about not having some needs met. Bullies are in charge and rarely frustrated. Some bullies do threaten violence, but nearly all bullies are content to damage people without fists or weapons.
There is a highly profitable workplace violence "industry" created by management consultants who don't want employers to hear the 11 percent figure. They want employers to fear employees. That illogical fear convinces employers to pay huge fees for psychological testing of non-supervisory employees and of pre-hire job applicants. Testing is wrong for two reasons. First, an uncritical acceptance of testing places a premium on personality as the cause of all action. In reality, hostile workplaces, in other words, situations and circumstances, coerce people to do strange things. A second error is to omit testing management, who comprise 89 percent of the pool of bullies according to our research. Therefore, the perpetrators are exempt from having their own aggressive impulses detected.
The industry experts, acting as sycophants for management, busily and expensively ferret out lower-level workers who appear to pose a potential risk to become violent and affix the scarlet letter "V." Many ex-law enforcement types work in the "industry" which helps maintain the notion that employees are fraudulent, not trustworthy, and simply are waiting to explode with guns blazing. Zero-tolerance clauses also enable a manager to provoke a worker over the course of several years and to terminate her immediately if she dares to react emotionally with a verbal threat. The workplace has become a police state for some based on irrational fears.
One federal worker, a mother with kids in child care, was dragged away unceremoniously from work in handcuffs when she innocently commented that since her workplace was hell (and she had her bully to blame for that) she could sympathize with postal workers who had become violent because no one listened to them either. She not only lost her job, she was prohibited to contact her children while she wrangled with law enforcement that night.
Are bullied Targets a violence risk? In the rarest of circumstances, a Target, after years of mistreatment at the hands of tyrant and inaction by the employer, saw no alternative and turned to violence.
One man killed himself and his branch manager of the state agency on the day of his return from recuperation from a heart attack induced by that manager. The manager greeted him in the parking lot and provoked him before entering the office. The man, described as very gentle and caring by all who knew him, got in his car and drove away, only to return minutes later with a loaded gun. His co-workers considered the killings a tragedy only because of the suicide. It turns out that the branch manager was a favorite in the state capitol. His reputation was as a "turnaround guy" who cracked the whip in each of the several offices to which he was assigned. Staff turnover, workers' compensation, and disability claims were his legacy. He was hated by employees, though encouraged and respected by the folks in the central office who generally disrespected their workforce.
Post-shooting analysts carefully have to dissect each episode of workplace violence. If the shooter selects certain people, then we at the Campaign are reasonably sure that those victims had previously frustrated the person by ignoring or denying repeated complaints about mistreatment at work. That is, when the victims are an EEO officer, a human resources staffer, or the boss of the bully, then we can attribute the violence to unaddressed bullying. Sadly, the knee-jerk, simplistic story told is that the shooter was a wacko. Reporters interview the bullying supervisor who defames the employee as a poor performer "with troubles" as the body is being loaded into the coroner's wagon.
It is more likely that Targets direct the violence inward and commit suicide. Given the roles shame and humiliation play in their lives, Targets have great difficulty getting out of bed and often suffer from depression. By the time they kill themselves, they have lost their marriages, their homes, their children, and all hope of surviving economically. It was bullying that probably drove them out of the job and started the decline in the quality of their lives in the first place. Unfortunately, the link between the suicide and the cruel mistreatment and subsequent loss of the job is less obvious than the trail of bodies in a public shooting rampage. A federal agency union representative knew of nine suicides in one year in her region directly attributable to bullying.
On a scale of damage one could suffer at work, incivilities would fall near the low end. Bullying would cover a wide middle range of destructive, intimidating workplace practices. Physical violence appears at the high end, score 10.
The most important difference between workplace violence and bullying is that the latter is a daily occurrence for many. Violence is rare, but bullying is estimated to affect one in five workers in the U.S. workforce (according to Keashly, "A Year 2000 Scientific Survey of Michigan Residents"). Headlines about violence regrettably distract the public from addressing the more prevalent phenomenon of bullying that destroys the lives, careers, and families of millions.
The Campaign, Catalyst for Change
Workplace bullying is a serious threat to:
Freedom from fear and trauma
Employee health and safety
Civil rights in the workplace
Dignity at work
Family cohesion and stability
Workteam morale and productivity
Employment practices liability
Retention of skilled employees
Bullying is a multi-faceted problem which requires multi-disciplinary solutions:
Behavioral and organizational researchers
Mental health practitioners
Management and human resources
It is an uphill fight to be sure. In our media-saturated world, messages for and about regular workers are rare. One former business reporter was so frustrated by the fawning over CEOs, investors, entrepreneurs, and consumers that he started an online magazinewww.disgruntled.com. There, he is able to tell stories from the employee's point of view. Daniel Levine is one of those rare advocates for employees. His 1998 book, Disgruntled: The Darker Side of the World of Work, speaks with a candor rarely seen in the mainstream press or heard in broadcasts. We join Disgruntled in the fight.
Silence and shame ensure that bullying will never stop. We must work to uncover and reverse the atrocities, one person, one company, and one law at a time.
Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person. Mother Teresa