By Fran Sepler
The woman flinched at her workstation when she saw that her coworker had returned from break. It was going to start again, and she knew it would take just moments to return to a state of clammy, sick fear.
“You’re an ugly b–h,” her coworker said, in a stage whisper. Some who overheard it giggled. Others turned away. It doesn’t take long, working with a bully, to understand that speaking up might put you in line to be the next target.
While the long-overdue topic of school bullying is finally getting its due, let’s not pretend that it stops there. Workplace bullying is a serious problem in America. Studies from the Workplace Bullying Institute suggest that an estimated 54 million Americans have been bullied at work.
The mere volume, however, as well as the schoolyard language to describe the behavior, understates the seriousness of bullying and its effect on working men and women.
I recently spoke with a man who tried for five years to complain about abusive treatment from his boss. He routinely was the target of shouted criticism, name-calling, having his pay docked for imagined infractions, and nearly daily threats of termination for no reason. With only a high school diploma in a failing economy, he felt he had no choice but to stay on the job and to try to get help.
When one day the verbal bullying turned to physical intimidation, he simply walked out. A year later, he has no job and a serious case of depression. He has attempted suicide twice. No one will hire someone who walked off their job.
When discussing this instance in training and public speaking, I am asked why he didn’t file a legal claim. This lands us square in the paradox of workplace bullying. While harassing someone on the basis of their race, age, religion, sex or other identity is considered a violation of civil rights, there is no similar protection if the harassment is not related to identity.
Thirty-six states, including Minnesota, have considered bills to allow bullied employees to make claims similar to victims of protected-class harassment, but employers have objected, often on the ground that employees could claim harassment any time they were subjected to legitimate performance management or discipline. With 25 years of workplace consulting under my belt, I think this is a bit disingenuous. Performance management is about helping someone to do their job. Bullying is about grinding someone down until they can’t do their job and get fired or quit.
Bullying is getting worse. As our ability to civilly disagree about matters of the day declines, resulting in demonization, hyperbolic name-calling and shunning, treating people in uncivil and dehumanizing ways becomes more routine. One who “flames” on the Internet may carry that habit into the workplace. Furthermore, employers are running lean, with a reduced workforce, more stress, greater financial pressure and the knowledge that few workers can just walk away from a job without jeopardizing their survival.
In the past year, I have heard of a manager tossing work in the face of an employee, coworkers sabotaging their colleagues’ work and malicious rumors being spread to keep a colleague from being promoted. I have also seen the “silent treatment” and name-calling transform confident, capable human beings into victims.
The time has come for employers who have not declared their workplaces to be bully-free to do so. Even if the law does not require it, many employers of goodwill know that bullying does nothing for their employment brand, their retention or their productivity.
Antibullying policies and attendant education are essential for the kind of workplace that is a haven from the rancor of our political and social divides. The courts are smart enough to know the difference between a tough performance review and a vicious attack. Responsible employers do as well.
As we take necessary steps to protect our children from bullying in schools, let’s ensure that, when they move on to the workplace, they remain free of this awful scourge.
Fran Sepler is a human-resource consultant in Minneapolis.