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Adult Bullying

Your ideas are dismissed, your phone calls go unreturned, you miss a key meeting because you weren’t invited…

Research has found that as many as a quarter of American employees will experience some form of bullying at work. Different from constructive criticism or conflict, bullying is persistent, it focuses on a person rather than a task, and the recipient feels powerless to stop it. Worst of all, employees who experience bullying find that it’s just as hard to explain and stop the abuse as it is to suffer through it.

Workplace bullying

Who gets bullied?
You can be anywhere on the corporate ladder; a woman or a man; blue collar or white collar—workplace bullying can happen to anyone.

What does workplace bullying look like?
Workplace bullying might include getting ignored, put down, left out, talked about, or humiliated. Although workplace bullying tends to be subtle, when men bully, it is often more aggressive or physical. With women, it might be more backhanded.

Signs of workplace bullying
The following signs of workplace bullying are adapted from research from the State University of New York and Wayne State University. While some of these behaviors may be isolated, if they form a pattern over time and are extreme, they may indicate workplace bullying:

  • Being left out from work-related social events
  • Coworkers storming out of the work area when you enter
  • Others regularly arriving late for meetings that you call
  • Being given the “silent treatment”
  • Not being given the praise you thought you deserved
  • Being treated rudely or disrespectfully
  • Coworkers refusing to help when you ask
  • Spreading rumors about you that aren’t true and that nobody denies
  • Being given little or no feedback about your performance
  • Others responding slowly to requests that were important to you
  • Being yelled or shouted at
  • Receiving put-downs about your intelligence or competence
  • Your telephone calls or other communications are ignored
  • Your contributions are ignored
  • Someone interferes with or sabotages your work
  • Being the recipient of mean pranks
  • Being lied to
  • Being denied a raise or promotion without a valid reason
  • Being given bigger workloads or shorter deadlines than coworkers
  • Being accused of making a mistake on purpose
  • A coworker throws a temper tantrum when you disagree with him
  • Being put down in front of others

Why does workplace bullying happen?

There is no one clear reason for workplace bullying, but a number of contributing factors might make it more likely to happen. The atmosphere or culture in a workplace, business approaches, and individual styles or personal frustrations can all play a role.

Culture and environment
A number of organizational culture factors can lead to a workplace that is more prone to bullying, as outlined here, from the Ivey Business Journal:

  • A culture of “making the numbers,” and an obsession with outcomes without considering the costs
  • Recruitment, promotion, and reward systems that focus on “strength of personality” or aggressiveness, while ignoring emotional intelligence and social skills
  • A focus on the short-term (e.g., quarterly results) while ignoring the long-term health of the organization
  • Codes of conduct that only address narrowly defined legal liabilities
  • Cronyism
  • Fear as a dominant workplace emotion and motivator
  • Poor or inconsistent discipline or performance appraisal processes

Perceptions and styles

  • People feel that they aren’t being treated equally
  • People feel like the approach to problem solving is unfair or applied unequally
  • People don’t get along
  • People don’t find their work enjoyable or satisfying

Harmful effects

Workplace bullying is no laughing matter. For the victim and witnesses who also report a negative impact, there are no neat and tidy solutions. Beyond impacting productivity, the cumulative stress of workplace bullying can be personally and professionally devastating and might include physical illness, mental health problems, and even losing or quitting a once-loved job.

The long list of illnesses that can result from workplace bullying is sobering, not to mention the financial devastation that might follow from getting demoted, fired, or quitting:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Clinical depression
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Helping yourself

Short of leaving your job, there are a growing number of resources to help if you or someone you know suffers from workplace bullying. More states are exploring or enacting anti-bullying bills, also known as “healthy workplace” legislation. And while not all companies have Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” slogan, more companies are securing the services of organizational psychologists to offer consultation, workshops, training, and education.

Effectively telling your story
A big challenge in resolving workplace bullying is getting support. Coworkers or higher-ups might not believe it when they hear about it, or the person reporting the problem might be considered petty or difficult. The following tips are adapted from the Project for Wellness and Work-Life’s 2007 publication How to Bust the Office Bully. These tips offers ways to tell your story as effectively as possible:

Be rational
Consider making an outline to help you tell the story in a logical and organized way and highlight key points or important events.

Keep emotions in check
Bullying is upsetting, but your story will be better received if you remain calm. Research has found that targets were considered less believable if they showed negative emotions while sharing their story.

Be consistent
It’s difficult to remember details, especially when you are upset. By documenting abuse as it happens, using a calendar to piece together events, and writing down what you report to your supervisors, you can keep your story straight.

Be focused
Avoid sharing details that might seem unrelated to the actions of the bully.

Emphasize your talents and skills
Targets are sometimes viewed as “problem employees,” so it’s important to highlight your strengths and career successes and why you were hired in the first place.

Show understanding of others’ points of view
You’ll sound even more reasonable if you acknowledge that the bully may not recognize how her actions have affected you and that you know that what you are saying may be hard to believe.

Be specific

Use clear, specific, concrete language and examples when you tell your story.

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