June 26, 2008

From the Playground to the Boardroom: Workplace Bullies

Apprehensive about going to work? Filled with anxiety once you're there? You may simply be stressed out from your workload. Or these signs could be indicative of something far more insidious. Bullying in the workplace is a lot more common than many people realize.

In what's considered the largest scientific study conducted in the United States on the topic, 37 percent of American workers said they have experienced workplace bullying. That's nearly 54 million people who have been bullied on the job. Yet bullying in the workplace is a global epidemic, albeit a "silent" one. Unlike the playground bully who often resorts to physical threats, the work bully's tactics are often subtle.

Workplace bullying is generally defined as "repeated, malicious, health-endangering mistreatment" of one or more employees or employers directed towards another employee or employees, which is intended to intimidate and create a risk to the health and safety of the employee. It can take the form of verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behavior that is threatening, humiliating or intimidating; and/or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done.

In March, University of Manitoba researchers reported that the emotional toll of workplace bullying is more severe than that of sexual harassment.

Many such situations involve employees bullying their peers, rather than a supervisor bullying an employee. However, very often this type of harassment stems from an abuse or misuse of power. According to the massive survey mentioned above, from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and research firm Zogby Interactive, the stereotype is real: most bullies are bosses. While 55 percent of those bullied are rank-and-file workers, 72 percent of bullies are bosses.

In today's corporate culture, supervisors may condone bullying as part of a tough management style. To help determine if you are a target of workplace bullying, Dr. Gary Namie, cofounder of the WBI and author of the book Bully at Work, offers the following telltale signs:
  • Agenda-less meetings where you're humiliated;
  • Unwarranted or invalid criticism;
  • False accusations of incompetence (blame without factual justification);
  • Never being left alone to do your job;
  • Exclusion or social isolation;
  • Excessive monitoring;
  • People feeling justified screaming or yelling at you in front of others, but you're punished if you scream back; and
  • Everything done to you is arbitrary and capricious, based on a personal agenda that undermines the employer's legitimate business interests.

Forty-five percent of bully targets suffer stress-related health problems, psychological-emotional injuries and other financial effects, according to last fall's WBI-Zogby survey and other research.

Problems can include cardiovascular problems (hypertension to strokes and heart attacks), immunological impairment (more frequent infections of greater severity), fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, panic attacks, clinical depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims of bullying can also experience reduced self-esteem and increased self-blame, musculoskeletal problems, sleep disturbances, digestive problems and, due to absence, financial problems. (Source: Washington State, Department of Labor and Industries)

At the same time, companies should be concerned about bullying, "if for no other reason than its potential to damage the bottom line," notes Monster.com.

Bullying can lead to such heavy tangible costs as those brought by downtime and workers' comp awards, as well as turnover (Who wants to work in a toxic and hostile workplace?) and resultant new-recruitment time and fees.

Yet there are also those intangible costs: tainted reputation, staff resistance and even sabotage by fearful employees who know no alternatives when management fails to punish or purge the bully.

What can companies do to prevent this kind of abuse in the workplace? "As with any form of harassment, management's vigilance is key," with the employer close enough to day-to-day operations that such harassment is recognizable, says Monster.com. Yet even this will not necessarily end abuse.

Several states in the U.S. have introduced anti-bullying bills and similar measures — so far without any real success. In fact, America lags far behind the rest of the Western industrialized countries both in acknowledging bullying at work and in legislative measures that address it on a societal level. Currently, there is no anti-bullying law in any U.S. state.

Business groups often argue that existing laws are adequate to protect workers. But bullying generally transcends sex, age or race, which have protected status in the courts. Instead, many hostilities in the workplace occur simply because one person doesn't like another.

Fortunately, increasingly more employees and employers are acknowledging this epidemic and trying to understand and fight it. As recent as May 2008, a paper titled "Nightmares, Demons and Slaves: Exploring the Painful Metaphors of Workplace Bullying" was the most downloaded article for the journal Management Communication Quarterly.

From: ThomasNet Industrial News Room

Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves - Exploring the Painful Metaphors of Workplace Bullying

By Sarah J. Tracy, Arizona State University, Tempe, Sarah.Tracy@asu.edu,
Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque,
Jess K. Alberts, Arizona State University, Tempe

Although considerable research has linked workplace bullying with psychosocial and physical costs, the stories and conceptualizations of mistreatment by those targeted are largely untold. This study uses metaphor analysis to articulate and explore the emotional pain of workplace bullying and, in doing so, helps to translate its devastation and encourage change. Based on qualitative data gathered from focus groups, narrative interviews, and target drawings, the analysis describes how bullying can feel like a battle, water torture, nightmare, or noxious substance. Abused workers frame bullies as narcissistic dictators, two-faced actors, and devil figures. Employees targeted with workplace bullying liken themselves to vulnerable children, slaves, prisoners, animals, and heartbroken lovers. These metaphors highlight and delimit possibilities for agency and action. Furthermore, they may serve as diagnostic cues, providing shorthand necessary for early intervention.

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