Workplace bullying has become epidemic in North America, one that has huge hidden costs in terms of employee well-being and productivity. Bullying can encompass psychological harassment, emotional abuse, sexual misconduct and physical abuse: it involves the conscious repeated effort to wound and seriously harm another person, not with violence, but with words and actions. Bullying damages the physical, emotional and mental health of the person who is targeted.

Bullying behaviour shows as an abuse of power between supervisors and subordinates in the workplace. Supervisors release their own pressure to bully subordinates with their higher power due to workplace bullying. It is always related to management style of the supervisors. An authoritative management style is accompanied by bullying behaviours which can make subordinates fear, so that supervisors can bolster their authority over others. On the other hand, some researchers agree that bullying behaviours can be a positive force for performance in the workplace. Workplace bullying can contribute to organizational power and control. if an organization wants to improve this situation in the workplace, strategies and policies must be put in place to improve it. Lacking policy about bullying, like low-monitoring or no punishment will result in tolerating bullying in an organization. Bullying behaviours in the workplace also exist among colleagues. They can be either the ‘target’ or perpetrator. If workplace bullying happens among the co-workers, witnesses will take sides, either with the target or the perpetrator. Perpetrators always win, because witnesses do not want to be the next target. This does encourage perpetrators to continue this behaviour. In addition, the sense of the injustice experienced by a target might lead that person to become another perpetrator who bullies other colleagues who have less power than they do.

Bullying is seen to be prevalent in organizations where employees and managers feel that they have the support, or at least the implicit blessing of senior managers to carry on their abusive and bullying behaviour. Furthermore, new managers will quickly come to view this form of behaviour as acceptable and normal if they see others get away with it and are even rewarded for it.

When bullying happens at the highest levels, the effects may be far reaching. People may be bullied irrespective of their organizational status or rank, including senior managers, which indicates the possibility of a negative domino effect, where bullying may cascade downwards, as the targeted supervisors might offload their own aggression onto their subordinates. In such situations, a bullying scenario in the boardroom may actually threaten the productivity of the entire organization.

Blake Ashforth discussed potentially destructive sides of leadership and identified what he referred to as petty tyrants, i.e.Leaders who exercise a tyrannical style of management, resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace. Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement can create an effective climate of fear and doubt.When employees get the sense that bullies “get away with it”, a climate of fear may be the result. Several studies have confirmed a relationship between bullying, on the one hand, and an autocratic leadership and an authoritarian way of settling conflicts or dealing with disagreements, on the other. An authoritarian style of leadership may create a climate of fear, where there is little or no room for dialogue and where complaining may be considered futile.

The workplace bully is often expert at knowing how to work the system. They can spout all the current management buzzwords about supportive management but basically use it as a cover. By keeping their abusive behaviour hidden, any charges made by individuals about his or her bullying will always come down to your word against his. They may have a kiss up kick down personality, wherein they are always highly cooperative, respectful, and caring when talking to upper management but the opposite when it comes to their relationship with those whom they supervise. Bullies tend to ingratiate themselves to their bosses while intimidating subordinates. They may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine their fate. Often, a workplace bully will have mastered kiss up kick down tactics that hide their abusive side from superiors who review their performance.

Bullying at work grinds victims down and makes them an ‘easy target’ for further abuse according to new research from the University of East Anglia. The study published in the journal, Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, reveals a spiral of abuse in which the victims of bullying become anxious, leaving them less able to stand up for themselves and more vulnerable to further harassment. The research suggests that employers should not only crack down on workplace bullies, but also help victims gain the skills to cope with difficult situations. Ana Sanz Vergel, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School, said: “This study shows that the relationship between workplace bullying and the psychological impact on victims is much more complex than expected.

In 2008, Dr. Judy Fisher-Blando wrote a doctoral research dissertation on Aggressive behaviour: Workplace Bullying and Its Effect on Job Satisfaction and Productivity. The scientific study determined that almost 75% of employees surveyed had been affected by workplace bullying, whether as a target or a witness.

Examples of Bullying Behavior

Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests that the following are the 25 most common workplace bullying tactics:

  1. Falsely accused someone of “errors” not actually made (71 percent).
  2. Stared, glared, was nonverbally intimidating and was clearly showing hostility (68 percent).
  3. Unjustly discounted the person’s thoughts or feelings (“oh, that’s silly”) in meetings (64 percent).
  4. Used the “silent treatment” to “ice out” and separate from others (64 percent).
  5. Exhibited presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group (61 percent).
  6. Made-up rules on the fly that even she/he did not follow (61 percent).
  7. Disregarded satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence (discrediting) (58 percent).
  8. Harshly and constantly criticized, having a different standard for the target (57 percent).
  9. Started, or failed to stop, destructive rumours or gossip about the person (56 percent).
  10. Encouraged people to turn against the person being tormented (55 percent).
  11. Singled out and isolated one person from other co-workers, either socially or physically (54 percent).
  12. Publicly displayed gross, undignified, but not illegal, behaviour (53 percent).
  13. Yelled, screamed, threw tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person (53 percent).
  14. Stole credit for work done by others (plagiarism) (47 percent).
  15. Abused the evaluation process by lying about the person’s performance (46 percent).
  16. Declared target “insubordinate” for failing to follow arbitrary commands (46 percent).
  17. Used confidential information about a person to humiliate privately or publicly (45 percent).
  18. Retaliated against the person after a complaint was filed (45 percent).
  19. Made verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent, age or language, disability (44 percent).
  20. Assigned undesirable work as punishment (44 percent).
  21. Created unrealistic demands (workload, deadlines, duties) for person singled out (44 percent).
  22. Launched a baseless campaign to oust the person; effort not stopped by the employer (43 percent).
  23. Encouraged the person to quit or transfer rather than to face more mistreatment (43 percent).
  24. Sabotaged the person’s contribution to a team goal and reward (41 percent).
  25. Ensured failure of person’s project by not performing required tasks, such as sign-offs, taking calls, working with collaborators (40 percent)

“Workplace bullying leads to poor health because the victim is exposed to a very stressful situation – resulting in anxiety and lack of vigor. We wanted to see whether deteriorated health could make the employee an easy target for bullying. For example, the victim may have less energy to respond to difficult situations and therefore receive less support from colleagues or supervisors,” Vergel reported. She goes on to say, “Another explanation is the so-called ‘gloomy perception mechanism’ in which anxious employees may evaluate their environment more negatively.”

The research team, which included colleagues from the Complutense University and Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain, tested their theory on 348 Spanish employees. Participants were interviewed about their experiences of bullying and assessed for anxiety and vigor. Vergel contents, “We found that being exposed to workplace bullying leads to deteriorated mental health and decreased well-being. But at the same time, showing anxious behavior puts the victim in a weak position and makes them an easy target – leading to a spiral of abuse.”

A second recent study by Christine Sprigg, Carolyn Axtell and Sam Farley of the University of Sheffield, together with Iain Coyne of Nottingham University was presented at the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual Festival of Social Science in November. They shine a light on this relatively new phenomenon—cyber bullying.

Cyber bullying can be defined as using modern communications technology such as e-mails, texts or web-postings to abuse people. And it is as common in the workplace as ‘conventional’ bullying. Yet, the way cyber bullying influences both the victim and witnesses are more hidden in the workplace according to new research by occupational psychologists.

Until now the impact of cyber bullying has mainly focused on younger people in environments such as schools rather than adult workers. The researchers reveal suggestions on how employers should tackle and prevent cyber bullying in the workplace. This will become more important as communication technologies continue to evolve and become more widespread.

The study included three separate surveys among employees in several U.K. universities, asking people about their experiences of cyber bullying. “We gave people a list of what can be classed as bullying, such as being humiliated, ignored or gossiped about, and asked them if they had faced such behavior online and how often,” said Coyne.

Of the 320 people who responded to the survey, around eight out of ten had experienced one of the listed cyber bullying behaviors on at least one occasion in the previous six months. The results also showed 14 to 20 per cent experienced them on at least a weekly basis — a similar rate to conventional bullying.

The research team also examined the impact of cyber bullying on workers’ mental strain and wellbeing. “Overall, those that had experienced cyber bullying tended to have higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction,” Coyne said. “In one of our surveys, this effect was shown to be worse for cyber bullying than for conventional bullying.”

The research team also found that the impact of witnessing cyber bullying was different than that seen for conventional bullying. “In the research literature, people who witness conventional bullying also show evidence of reduced wellbeing. However, in our research this does not appear to be the case for the online environment,” Coyne said.

“Witnesses are much less affected. This might be because of the remote nature of cyberspace — perhaps people empathize less with the victims. This could affect the witness’s reaction to the bullying and potentially whether to report it or otherwise intervene.”

Another Canadian study shows bullying gives employees the urge to quit their jobs, which again, can be a significant cost to employers

Merely showing up to work in an environment where bullying goes on is enough to make many of us think about quitting, a new study suggests. Canadian researchers writing in the journal Human Relations, have found that nurses not bullied directly, but who worked in an environment where workplace bullying occurred, felt a stronger urge to quit than those actually being bullied. These findings on “ambient” bullying have significant implications for organizations, as well as contributing a new statistical approach to the field.

To understand whether bullying in the work unit environment can have a negative impact on a worker’s desire to remain in their organization, independent of their personal or direct experiences of workplace bullying, organizational behavior and human resources experts from the University of British Columbia surveyed 357 nurses in 41 hospital units.

Their analysis of the survey results showed that targets of bullying were more likely to be thinking of leaving. They also showed a statistically significant link between working somewhere where bullying was going on and a wish to leave. Next the researchers used statistical analysis to test the relationship between turnover intention and whether an individual was experiencing bullying directly. They found that the positive relationship between work unit-level bullying and turnover intentions is stronger for those who rarely experienced direct bullying compared with those who are bullied often.

The Cost to Organizations of Bullying
  • According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety Health (NIOSH) mental illness among the workforce leads to a loss in employment amounting to $19 billion and a drop in productivity of $3 billion (Sauter, et al., 1990).
  • In a report commissioned by the ILO, Hoel, Sparks, & Cooper did a comprehensive analysis of the costs involved in bullying They estimated a cost 1.88 Billion Pounds plus the cost of lost productivity.
  • Based on replacement cost of those who leave as a result of being bullied or witnessing bullying, Rayner and Keashly (2004) estimated that for an organization of 1,000 people, the cost would be $1.2 million US. This estimate did not include the cost of litigation should victims bring suit against the organization.
  • A recent Finnish study of more than 5,000 hospital staff found that those who had been bullied had 26% more certified sickness absence than those who were not bullied, when figures were adjusted for base-line measures one year prior to the survey (Kivimaki et al., 2000). According to the researchers these figures are probably an underestimation as many of the targets are likely to have been bullied already at the time the base-line measures were obtained.

Research by Dr. Dan Dana has shown organizations suffer a large financial cost by not accurately managing conflict and bullying type behaviours. He has developed a tool to assist with calculating the cost of conflict. In addition, researcher Tamara Parris discusses how employers need to be more attentive in managing various discordant behaviours in the workplace, such as, bullying, as it not only creates a financial cost to the organization, but also erodes the company’s human resources assets.

A number of previous studies have shown a strong correlation between a high staff turnover and bullying within an organization, especially when there is other employment readily available. From an organization’s perspective, staff turnover is costly, and when the word gets out about bullying this can also be damaging to reputation.

The study has wider implications in the field of human resources, the authors say, because they examined a broad, varied and generalized experience of bullying. Further, because they relied on hierarchical linear modeling techniques, the researchers could accurately examine the simultaneous impacts of direct bullying and ambient bullying, showing each unique effect above and beyond that accounted for by the other (something not possible with earlier statistical techniques).

“Of particular note is the fact that we could predict turnover intentions as effectively either by whether someone was the direct target of bullying, or by how much an environment was characterized by bullying,” said corresponding author, Marjan Houshmand. “This is potentially interesting because we tend to assume that direct, personal experiences should be more influential upon employees than indirect experiences only witnessed or heard about in a second-hand fashion. Yet our study identifies a case where direct and indirect experiences have a similarly strong relationship to turnover intentions.”

The author theorizes that although individuals may experience moral indignation at others being bullied, it is perceived as being even more unfair when others are bullied and they are not. The work contributes to a growing area of human relations study, which looks at how third party experiences affect individuals within organizations. “This work provides insight into the bullying targets’ understanding of their experiences and it challenges the ‘passive’ view of workplace bullying that characterizes the targets of bullying as hapless victims who are too vulnerable and weak to fight their bullies,” Houshmand suggests. “Instead, the targets of bullying see ‘escaping’ their own and other people’s bullies as a means to create turmoil and disrupt the organization as an act of defiance.”

What Organizations Can Do About Bullying

Often when people have been affected by bullying, they approach a person or body in an administrative position, such as a human resources department, to try and address it. In many cases it is handled by people who are not trained or qualified to address the matter, and this can lead to conflict, reprisals and outcomes that are not considered satisfactory. Some important recommendations from experts about addressing bullying effectively, are to recognize that inappropriate behaviour is taking place, and to create an environment such that it won’t continue in future. In some countries government guidelines outline standards about how responses to bullying matters should be handled.

In the United States, comprehensive workplace bullying legislation has not been passed by the federal government or by any US state, but since 2003 many state legislatures have considered bills. As of April 2009, 16 US states have proposed legislation. In Canada, most provinces have anti-bullying legislation.

These workplace bullying bills would typically have allowed employees to sue their employers for creating an “abusive work environment”, and most have been supported by the notion that laws against workplace bullying are necessary to protect public health. Many of the above bills are based upon the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill. This proposed bill contains several restrictive provisions not found in workplace anti-bully legislation adopted in other countries. Despite the lack of any federal or state law specifically on workplace bullying, some targets of bullying have prevailed in lawsuits that allege alternative theories, such as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Assault.

Here’s some suggestions from experts on what organizations can do:

  • When recruiting people, organizations can reduce bullying by not accepting bullies to work. Many years ago, research showed that people with high emotional intelligence are better workers, even when they lack knowledge (initially). When recruiting, especially for managers, examine their emotional intelligence, not just their knowledge and technical skills.
  • When recruiting employees, prepare very clear job descriptions and clear and visible policies regarding holidays, sick leave, overtime, accidents, sick kids, doctor’s appointments and work hours. Make sure job descriptions do not include punishments but they do include incentives for doing a good job and getting along well with the other employees.
  • Have quarterly meetings with each of your employees and a procedure that allows them to give feedback and express concerns outside the review cycle.
  • Give incentives to healthy workers. You can let your employees take their sick day allowance as a vacation, for example. This is better for you, because your will know and plan ahead when they are away and not have to find a replacement when they do not show up in the morning.
  • Have good training for new workers. Have a proper job succession procedure where the person leaving spends time with the new worker to fill them in. New workers are targets for bullying because they can be fooled and tricked by using their lack of knowledge.
  • Have a buddy system for new employees. When you hire a new employee, they are at risk of being bullied, because they lack local information and there is a chance their arrival may be considered a threat by some established veteran. Assign a buddy to help them adjust and learn their new work. Be very careful when choosing a buddy and find someone who will be a good protector and a good ambassador for your organization.
  • Have a structured, confidential complaint system. It is very natural for every organization to have unhappy people. Instead of letting them build up into something serious, introduce a procedure to tackle misunderstandings when they happen. Rather than assigning blame and punishing wrongdoers, this system should seek to resolve issues and benefit everyone involved.
  • Review managers’ performance and behavior and limit their power. Power is tempting and not everyone can use the power given to them wisely. Without a monitoring system, managers and other people in power can start taking advantage of their power. Have proper review of every manger and include their employees’ feedback in it. Much like at universities, where the students write an anonymous review on each lecturer, you should have an anonymous review on each of the managers, including yourself.
  • When you need to remove an employee, do it properly. Do not make their life so hard they will quit. The time, effort and risk are not worth it. If you are worried about the termination payment, remember that unproductive workers who do not wish to be at work and feel threatened can do more damage than that even if they stay one more day.

One thing is for sure; the problem of workplace bullying will not go away anytime soon, and may never be fully remedied until enough people call for a return to a culture of civility and demand that leaders in organizations do something about the problem.

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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