Workplace bullying a growing concern

| March 12, 2014
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Bullying is in the news – and the workplace. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From an NFL player extincting threats to a teammate to a member of Congress turning off a fellow Representative’s microphone, there is no shortage of high-profile incidents regarding bullying in the workplace. For the rest of us, working in cubicles, hospitals, factories or construction sites, workplace bullying may not elicit media coverage, but it’s no less rampant — or disturbing.

What constitutes workplace bullying?

A survey of U.S. workers, released last month by the non-profit Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), found 27 percent had personally endured harassment at work, and 72 percent said they were “aware” of the problem.

Most definitions of workplace bullying address repeated incidents of abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating or intimidating, or interferes with someone’s work. Examples include:

  • Belittling or demeaning someone regarding their ideas or work
  • Degrading or humiliating someone in front of others
  • Spreading rumors
  • Withholding information
  • Blocking the advancement or growth of someone
  • Ignoring a co-worker
  • Taking credit for someone else’s work

When the bully is your boss

While all of these behaviors can be perpetrated by anyone in the workplace, 56 percent of the time, the bully is a boss or someone with a higher level of authority within the organization, according to the WBI survey, conducted by Zogby Analytics.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and University of Southern California have found that bosses who are in over their heads – or feel they are inadequate – are more likely to bully their subordinates, through behavior such as belittling the employee’s efforts, blaming him for things that are out of his control or giving him larger workloads or shorter deadlines than his co-workers.

The perception of superiority – or fear of personal incompetence – can also contribute to bullying among co-workers.

According to one research study, permanently employed workers often target temporary-laborers for “working too hard or doing too good of a job” – fearing that the temp worker might be awarded their permanent position. Similarly, 53 percent of student nurses report that they have been insulted by a staff nurse, and 52 percent say they have been threatened or experienced verbal violence at work, according to the American Nursing Association.

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Nursing students can face bullying from staff nurses. (Photo credit: COD Newsroom)

Unfortunately, targets of bullying often don’t have much recourse. In the WBI study,

85 percent of people who reported bullying to their human resources department said the complaint went ignored or made the situation worse.

A cultural problem

This type of organization-wide culture can be a large part of the problem. Many experts, including the British Psychological Society, say that “research shows workplace harassment is generally not an issue of personality conflicts but rather a reflection of the whole organizational system.”

In highly competitive, high-pressure fields and those that, historically, have had a predominantly male or female workforce, bullying is often seen as “hazing” or a way of life. According to PBS’ “This Emotional Life” website, organizational behaviors that can encourage bullying include:

  • Focusing on short-term benefits and “making the numbers,” without considering the costs or long-term health of the organization
  • Rewarding and recruiting aggressiveness, while ignoring emotional intelligence and social skills
  • Cronyism
  • Using fear as a motivator
  • Exhibiting poor or inconsistent discipline or performance appraisal

“Healthy workplace” legislation

Despite all this, there is hope. Currently, 26 states have introduced bills against workplace bullying, which spell out the definition and legal ramifications of bullying. While none so far have been enacted into law, the legislation is gaining traction in several states, and even inspiring the passage of new “zero tolerance” policies in some cities.


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