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An Introduction to Workplace Bullying
"The workplace bully slings insults to publicly humiliate, seeks to intimidate or threaten in verbal or non-verbal ways, and intentionally interferes in the work of an employee in a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction [Emphasis added]."
"Bullying is a form of psychological warfare [Emphasis added] inflicted by an adult that's akin to domestic violence — only in this case, the abuser is on the company's payroll."
What Is Workplace Bullying?
Although their approach is widely criticized, it is fair to say that bullies are present in most organizations. They come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, and both genders. Bullying has been most recently and comprehensively defined in the United States as "repeated mistreatment: abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse. Importantly, bullying is defined as 'abusive conduct,' referring to its most serious forms only."
Just as bullies come from all walks of life, bullying too can manifest in many forms — with behaviors ranging from rudeness and incivility (an inconvenient by-product of many stressful workplaces) to actual physical violence. Most bullying falls someplace in between these extremes. Some of the most common examples of abusive conduct include verbal abuse, insults, verbal or physical conduct that is threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the sabotage of a person's work performance.
At its core, bullying is fundamentally about a lack of respect for other human beings, and it transcends culture or nationality. In the most extreme cases, it can actually be quite psychopathic. At the very least, it involves a lack of empathy or ability to motivate people to perform at their highest levels while at work.
Prevalence of the Problem — A Look at the Statistics
Though bullying is personally destructive and should have nothing to do with advancing legitimate organizational goals, roughly 27 percent of the workforce in the United States — an estimated 36.9 million U.S. workers — report having suffered abusive conduct at work.
The physical or emotional health (and sometimes both) of targeted employees is usually affected — often severely. In fact, the targets' self-confidence is often so destroyed by the repeated negative actions that they even lack the courage necessary to leave such toxic environments. Instead, they find themselves trapped in a world of psychological abuse — and on the receiving end of the destructive behaviors of their supervisor, colleagues, and sometimes even their own subordinates.
Just two decades ago, most Americans were generally unfamiliar with the concept of bullying (other than the kind that occurs on schoolyards), but the term has now made it into the popular lexicon and is heard with increasing frequency. Actresses Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" and Jennifer Aniston in "Horrible Bosses" have also helped shine a light on the problem through their use of humor and satire. Media in the U.S. regularly feature stories about bullying's pervasiveness, and bookstores around the country stock a variety of books about bad bosses. Notably, it is in no small part due to the books with provocative titles that have helped raise the problem to the level of national consciousness — books like Snakes in Suits and The No Asshole Rule, just to name two.
In addition to the workplace, there are reports of increased bullying in schools and universities, as well as through online venues and social media. Tragically, some bullying incidents have been linked to suicide. Reports have also surfaced about hazing and targeted physical and emotional abuse in sports teams, by coaches, and by fellow players. Consistent with its approach to leadership development, the U.S. military has conducted at least a decade of research about "toxic leaders" — a term used in the military that is similar to the corporate reference to workplace bullies. In addition to the U.S. Army's own research, we completed a study with a group of army officers that adds to the growing body of research about the differences between tough bosses and toxic or bullying leaders.
This spike in attention has most assuredly raised awareness, but it has also created some skeptics. Those who are not yet convinced that bullying is a real workplace problem are asking some legitimate questions:
* Is all of this focus on bullying just another convenient topic to fill excess media space?
* Is it just another example of people becoming "soft" and overly sensitive?
* If we attempt to regulate such conduct, aren't we likely to see a surge of frivolous lawsuits?
We believe that the answer to each of those questions is unequivocally "no"; however, we also understand that you will need to form your own conclusions before you can make a truly informed decision about whether to address the problem — or not. We have canvassed a wide range of research-based evidence in our attempt to convince you that bullying is a pervasive and complex phenomenon with significant costs to its targets, their families and friends; to organizations; and to society as a whole — and possibly even to you personally.
To give you a better sense about what U.S. researchers know so far about the problem, here is a brief overview of the most recent prevalence studies:
* Workplace Bullying Institute, U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey —
Twenty-seven percent of the participating adult Americans reported that they have directly experienced "repeated abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage, or work abuse." When witnesses were included, 48 percent of employees reported having been affected. Seventy-two percent of Americans indicated that they are now aware of workplace bullying, and 93 percent said that they want a law to protect them from abuse (in addition to currently available anti-discrimination laws). The results suggest that employers are not taking proactive steps to end bullying given the fact that the targets were transferred (13 percent), were fired (13 percent), were forced out (19 percent), or had quit (29 percent) in nearly three-quarters of the reported cases. In terms of gender, female bullies still target women at a disproportional rate (68 percent), and women remain the primary targets for both genders (60 percent of all reported abuse).
* Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Survey Findings: Workplace Bullying —
About one-half (51 percent) of responding HR professionals reported that there had been incidents of bullying in their workplaces. Of those organizations that had experienced incidents, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) reported verbal abuse, three out of five (62 percent) reported malicious gossiping and/or spreading lies/rumors about workers, and one-half (50 percent) reported threats or intimidation. About one-quarter (27 percent) of HR professionals reported having been bullied in the workplace. Of those who had been bullied, more than half (57 percent) had reported their experiences to someone in the organization. The study concluded that the three most common outcomes of bullying incidents experienced by organizations were decreased morale (68 percent), increased stress and/or depression levels (48 percent), and decreased trust among co-workers (45 percent).
* SHRM and the Ethics Resource Center survey —
In this joint study, approximately 3 out of 10 HR professionals reported having observed misconduct that they believed violated their organizations' ethics standards, company policy, or the law within the prior 12-month period. Of the top five types of misconduct witnessed, the most prevalent included abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees (excluding sexual harassment), with 57 percent of the participants witnessing this type of behavior at work.
* Employment Law Alliance survey —
In a March 2007 survey of 1,000 U.S. adults (which included extensive interviews with 534 full- or part-time workers), 44 percent of the respondents reported that they have worked for an abusive boss. In addition, the study reported that workers ages 18 to 24 were less likely to have encountered an abusive boss (24 percent) than their older counterparts, who reported a higher incident rate (ages 25 to 34, 37 percent; ages 35 to 44, 49 percent; ages 45 to 54, 49 percent; and ages 55 to 64, 56 percent). College-educated workers reported more bullying (47 percent) than those with a high school education or less (34 percent). Interestingly, Southern workers (34 percent) were less likely to have experience with an abusive boss than their Northeastern (56 percent) and Midwestern (48 percent) counterparts. An overwhelming majority of the study's participants (64 percent) agreed that an abused worker should have the right to sue to recover damages.
As these major studies confirm, workplace bullying appears to have become a regular occurrence in workplaces across North America. Sadly, these rates of occurrence are similarly high throughout the world. So how did we get to this sorry state of affairs? We will explore that question in more depth in Chapter 2.
How We Got Here: Some Historical Background
"The forbidden truth is that we are living by a set of lies which are necessary for short-term profit, at the expense of human physical and psychological life and global environmental integrity. We are living in a system where power ensures that the requirements of profit take priority over the requirements of living things. ... Consequently our freedom extends as far as, and no further than, the satisfaction of these requirements, with all else being declared neurosis, paranoia, communism, extremism, the work of the devil, or Neptunian nonsense."
To provide some context for the current incivility and abuse taking place in U.S. corporations, it is important to consider some of the events and decisions that have, in combination, helped shape the workplace of today. The goal of this chapter is not to criticize the U.S. economy, but to provide some context and perspective about why an astonishing 27 percent of U.S. employees report that they work for abusive bosses.
A Relentless Focus on the Maximization of Profits and Results
The modus operandi of most organizations seems to be a relentless focus on the maximization of profits and the ruthless pursuit of results at any cost. If you work in a for-profit company, you understand exactly what we are talking about. In fact, you probably deal with related goals every day. Even if you work for a government agency or nonprofit organization, you have no doubt felt the demands for greater efficiency and productivity, perhaps above all other concerns.
The push to become more customer-driven or to "do more with less" has become a driver for organizations in all sectors. These are not necessarily bad or inappropriate goals, by the way. Efficiency and productivity are market-driven concerns. Focusing on customers and stakeholders are important parts of creating strong organizations, which leads, in turn, to a strong economy. Nothing about achieving these goals, though, requires uncivil or dehumanizing environments for the people who work in them. In fact, just the opposite is true.
The economist Milton Friedman once contended that "the (only) responsibility of business is to maximize profits." With limited exceptions, there has been widespread acceptance of this view ever since. While we recognize that corporations need to achieve results and be profitable, along with many others, we are of the opinion that this is only a part of their responsibility.
They also are responsible for maximizing all of their assets, including people. As Kenneth Mason suggested:
The moral imperative all of us share in this world is that of getting the best return we can on whatever assets we are privileged to employ. What American business leaders too often forget is that this means all the assets employed — not just the financial assets but also the brains employed, the labor employed, the materials employed, and the land, air, and water employed.
Fueled by activist shareholders, private-equity firms, and bonuses based on stock prices, corporate leaders instead seem obsessed with maximizing quarterly profits — and they have been quite successful in doing so. The stock market has hit all-time record highs in recent years. Ironically, though, even as profits have continued to climb, wages for workers hit an all-time low in 2013.
Institutional investors have also had great influence on corporate decision-making in recent years. As a group, they tend to believe that caring about anything but profits is inappropriate. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that focusing on anything but profits is possibly a violation of management's fiduciary responsibility. As a result of this short-term focus, many companies fail to adequately consider the interests of their other key stakeholders: customers, employees, and society. The result of this obsession with profits and efficiency has been a dehumanizing of the U.S. workplace, where employees are frequently treated in a disrespectful manner or even abused in a convoluted effort to increase productivity, and managers are rewarded for engaging in those very same behaviors.
In support of this perspective, the corporate psychopath theory of the global financial crisis has been proposed. That interesting theory, offered by Clive Boddy, suggests that a reasonable explanation of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 is that numerous psychopaths were working in corporations and in many financial institutions. He noted that "such malevolent leaders are callously disregarding of the needs and wishes of others, prepared to lie, bully and cheat and to disregard or cause harm to the welfare of others." He further suggested that these individuals have risen to key senior positions within modern financial institutions "where they are able to influence the moral climate of the organization and yield considerable power." His conclusion? It is these individuals who "have largely caused the crisis."
The net result of this prolonged focus on profit maximization has been to destabilize the psychological foundations of the corporations on which our global economy relies. In our opinion, though, the economists were wrong. As Tim Richards brilliantly expressed, "What you get when you have a human who is perfectly rational and utterly self-interested isn't an ideal economic specimen of the species. No, it's Hannibal Lecter in a business suit [Emphasis added]."
This profit obsession has created significant changes for employees working in U.S. corporations over the last 30 years. Some of the most significant of these changes will be examined next.
Changes in the U.S. Workplace
In the past, working for a corporation was significantly defined by promises. Corporations committed to provide employees with lifetime job security, fair compensation, health care, and a secure retirement plan. In exchange, employees promised to show up every day, perform their work, and demonstrate loyalty to the organization. Together, this unspoken understanding about the promises and commitments between employers and employees formed the implicit "social contract" of the work relationship.
The problem was that this relationship often caused employees to feel like children — the company was the "parent" (for example, giving direction as well as an allowance, while also providing security), and the employee was the "dutiful child" (for example, following orders and not questioning authority in exchange for the protections and benefits offered by the organization). Employees were often frustrated with the repetition of their jobs and the often autocratic nature of their supervisors; however, these corporate promises were viewed as enough to justify the trade-offs for a majority of employees.
If you stop and think about it, the essential nature of this parent-child relationship remains in place at most organizations even today. Although some companies have worked hard to develop positive cultures where employees are truly valued, others follow a more cutthroat approach. Just like the actual parent-child relationship that exists at home, unless laws are directly and egregiously broken, there are simply no binding rules requiring leaders to be kind to employees or, for that matter, even civil.
In large part, this relationship was developed due to the intense focus by organizations on efficiency. In large-scale operations, it was generally less expensive to purchase labor in bulk than to hire craftpersons by the hour to perform each task. For workers, this meant selling control over their time, energy, and talents to someone else. For corporations, the problem was utilization. Paying for 40 hours of labor if only 30 were needed was considered to be wasteful.
Excerpted from "Stop Bullying at Work"
Copyright © 2016 Teresa A. Daniel and Gary S. Metcalf.
Excerpted by permission of Society For Human Resource Management.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Workplace Bullying: What It Is and Isn't,
Chapter 1. An Introduction to Workplace Bullying,
Chapter 2. How We Got Here: Some Historical Background,
Chapter 3. What Is Workplace Bullying Anyway?,
Chapter 4. Understanding the Differences between a Workplace Bully and a "Tough Boss",
Chapter 5. Understanding the Differences between Workplace Bullying and Hazing,
Chapter 6. Why Should Anyone Care? The Costs and Consequences of Workplace Bullying,
Part II: Examining Workplace Bullying,
Chapter 7. The Individual Perspective,
Chapter 8. The Situational Perspective,
Chapter 9. The Organizational Systems Perspective,
Chapter 10. The Legal/Regulatory Perspective,
Part III: When HR Professionals Are Bullied at Work,
Chapter 11. When Workplace Bullying Hits Home (and HR Is the Target),
Chapter 12. Why HR Practitioners Are Bullied: An Executive Perspective,
Part IV: Dealing with Workplace Bullying,
Chapter 13. Responding to Workplace Bullying,
Chapter 14. Exploring Alternative Perspectives — Can Workplace Bullying Ever Be Positive?,
Part V: The Way Forward,
Chapter 15. A Strategic Roadmap,
Chapter 16. Avoiding the Pitfalls — Common Organizational Mistakes,
Chapter 17. Where Do We Go from Here?,
Appendix: Strategic HR Tools,
A. SHRM's Recommended Model Workplace Bullying Policy,
B. The "Brutal Boss" Questionnaire,
C. Sample Workplace Bullying Prevalence Survey,
D. "Culture of Respect" Climate Assessment,
E. Developing a Comprehensive Employee Relations Strategy,
F. Useful Websites,
About the Authors,
Additional SHRM-Published Books,