Finding a Job

Workplace bullying -The 'silent epidemic'

These days it seems that we hear allegations of bullying at every turn. So is the concept of work place bullying legitimate or just an excuse for bad performers who can’t handle the pressure of the modern work environment?

An increasing number of studies and surveys, when taken together, cast light on the surprising dynamics of bullying occurring in the workplace – the belittling, reputational attacks, gossip and elbowing that make many modern workplaces unbearable.

Bullying is not the same as disciplining. Bullying might mean different things to different people, but it’s behavior that is severe and pervasive. It’s conduct that makes people uncomfortable and it can have dire effects on organizational productivity.

Since 2003, 26 states have introduced Happy Workplace bills to help eliminate bullying at work. Unfortunately, none of those laws have been enacted yet.

A VitalSmarts report released earlier this week found that 96% of their respondents – out of 2,283 people – experienced workplace bullying. Psychology Today refers to the increase as a ‘silent epidemic’.

Here's what the studies show: bullying is not random. It has reasons in the bully's mind, even if those reasons are unfair, skewed, and informed by their personal insecurities. Some feel justified in bullying their subordinates or co-workers if they feel they are unethical or bad performers. That bodes well for handling bullies, in the workplace or elsewhere, because it means you can address the root causes – and it's absolutely essential to stand up for yourself, because bullies tend to prey on those they perceive as weak, and they have lasting power in the office. They tend to drive better workers away to remain the last man (or woman) standing, and they tend to turn on not just one person, but several at a time.

Joseph Grenny, co-author of the study and the book Crucial Conversations says “We were astonished that in so many cases the person most likely to remain in his or her job was the bully.”

The scope of bullying is larger than most people realize - Bullying includes being falsely accused of mistakes, being subjected to the silent treatment, being the subject of unfair gossip or assaults on your reputation, having professional performance belittled or diminished in front of peers, and having someone steal credit for your work. VitalSmarts found that bullying included sabotaging others' work or reputation, browbeating and threats, or even physical intimidation.

Not surprisingly, given the extent of that list, bullying happens to nearly everyone at some point in their career.

Yet bosses are not the only ones guilty of bullying. Workplace bullies come in different shapes and sizes: a boss who can be mean for no reason, a co-worker who steals our spotlight, a co-worker who takes credit for our work, a client that knows no boundaries. While 48% of 3,800 workers nationwide were bullied by their superiors, 45% said their bullies were coworkers and 31% admitted to being bullied by customers, according to a CareerBuilder study.

VitalSmarts found that only 51% of respondents said their company had a policy for dealing with bullies. What's even worse, just 7% know of someone who used that policy and 6% say that it didn't work to stop the bully. Instead of punishing the bullies, many workplaces reward them. A research paper in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that bullies tend to be very good at office politics - or at least, kissing up to the boss and using gossip through office social networks to attack those they consider rivals. While victims are usually targeted due to their social incompetence, on some occasions bullies can possess high levels of social ability. Due to their social competence, they are able to strategically abuse coworkers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor.

Perhaps due to their elaborate strategies for sucking up while kicking others, bullies tend to last. More than half of workplace bullies, 54%, have been at it for more than five years, with no consequences. Some bullies have been with their company for as long as 30 years.

Any of these acts can and do pollute workplace environment, which in turn can lead to higher turnover rate. About 17% of those voluntarily leaving their job did so because of management and their work environment, Gallup found in 2008. About a third, at 32%, cited career advancement and promotion opportunities as their reason.

Having a bully for a boss is probably no career booster. After all, a boss who frequently belittles you is not likely to help you advance.

Dealing with Bullies

Grenny and his co-author, David Maxfield, suggest several techniques for dealing with bullies, including speaking up right away, sticking to detailed facts when talking about bullying, finding out what kind of legitimate concern the bully has, warning the bully of the consequences of their behavior, and holding boundaries.

Workplace bullying is a complex issue and it’s not going away any time soon.

Share your thoughts and experience of workplace bullying below.

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