By Susan Gunelius
October is Anti-bullying Month, and most people think of schoolyard bullies when they hear the term “bully.” However, bullies come in many shapes and sizes, and workplace bullies are extremely common. Fortunately, organizations like the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) offer a lot of helpful information to empower bullied employees to fight back.
WBI defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct or behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and/or work interference (i.e., sabotage) which prevents work from getting done.
Active and Passive Workplace Bullying Exists
Not only do all of these bullying behaviors affect the emotional well-being of the person being bullied, but they also negatively impact workplace productivity for the people directly involved as well as their co-workers. It’s important to understand that workplace bullying doesn’t typically include any form of physical violence. Instead, workplace bullying usually includes emotional and psychological aggression, and that aggression may be active or passive.
For example, the boss that repeatedly assigns projects to a subordinate with the knowledge that the employee cannot complete them by the required deadline is guilty of active aggression. He or she is intentionally setting the employee up for failure in order to build a case against that employee’s performance. This type of bully often makes the employee miserable with the hope that the employee will eventually quit.
On the other hand, the boss that repeatedly undermines or insults a subordinate is a passive aggressive bully. For example, the boss who sees his or her employee leaving the office at 5:00 (the employee’s known quitting time) and offers a comment such as, “Leaving so early? You must not have enough work to do,” is guilty of bullying just as much as the active bully is.
Internal Anti-bullying Starts at the Top
Both active-aggressive and passive-aggressive occur in large and small companies, and they create toxic environments. The onus is on the company’s leadership team to establish strict and specific policies related to workplace bullying and to ensure all employees feel safe and protected. Coming to work shouldn’t be a physical or emotional nightmare for any employee.
Leaders also need to understand that employees are often targeted for bullying whom other employees feel are threats. For example, the employee who excels at everything she does could be a threat to other employees for an upcoming promotion or raise. That employee could also be a threat simply because she makes her coworkers look bad by drawing attention to their underperformance. It’s critical for leaders to determine which type of bullying situation is occurring before reacting.
With all of that said, it’s also important to point out that most workplace bullies are bosses. According to WBI research, 72% of bullies are bosses. Company executives need to take responsibility and ensure employees have a method to report workplace bullying when their bosses are the ones doing the bullying. WBI research also reports that 40% of workplace bullying incidents are not reported, and it’s safe to assume that for many of those cases, employees were bullied by their bosses and had no other avenue to report their problems.
Anti-bullying in the Workplace Legislation
Currently, there are no laws against workplace bullying, but activists are lobbying to have the Healthy Workplace Bill enacted. Since 2003, 21 states have introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill, but no laws have been enacted yet. Until these bills become laws, workplace anti-bullying policies will continue to be rare simply because companies are not required to have them. Fortunately, WBI offers a variety of tools and help for victims of workplace bullying so they have a chance to protect themselves and fight back.
Have you been a victim of workplace bullying? How did you cope or fight back? Have you witnessed workplace bullying? Remember, it can be very subtle and done in an underhanded way, but it’s still bullying if the result makes an employee feel like they’ve been abused, threatened, humiliated or intimidated. Know the signs of workplace bullying so you don’t become a victim and so you don’t inadvertently support bullying behaviors by your co-workers.