Bullying in the Workplace: Why It Happens, How to Respond

April 6, 2018

Bullying in the workplace

Nearly 20% of adult Americans are being bullied or have been bullied at work, with women disproportionately targeted, a 2017 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found.

The survey found:

  • Women are the majority of targets (66%) and men the majority of perpetrators (70%)
  • Minority employees are targeted more often than white employees
  • Both men and women who bully in the workplace target women more often; only 10% of bullying cases involve women bullying men
  • 61% of bullies are bosses
  • 65% of targets lose their jobs

Why people bully

Andrew Faas, author of The Bully’s Trap: Bullying in the Workplace (Tate Publishing, 2016), said during an AMA podcast that bullying happens because it’s part of a workplace’s culture.

In most cases, a bully has been bullied in the past. Bullies believe that to stay or to advance in an organization, they have to do the same, Faas explained. “Why do they bully? It’s expected,” he said.

Their goal is to discredit their target, Faas said. The abusive boss may ask the employee to make a presentation but deny her access to the material needed. Or the boss may exclude the person from important meetings, or criticize her to superiors when she’s not there to defend herself. This is not an “aggressive management style,” he emphasized.

“Executives feel that creating a less toxic workplace will restrict managers from doing their jobs. That’s a myth,” Faas said. “In some instances, you have to take tough actions (with employees), and that is not bullying.”

Serious effects of bullying

The effects of bullying are huge for everyone who is targeted, Shimi Kang, MD, author of The Dolphin Way (TarcherPerigee, 2014), writes in Psychology Today.

“I’ve seen highly intelligent, high functioning, strong-willed, passionate employees succumb to the pressures of workplace bullying,” Kang writes. “Common outcomes include stress, mental health issues, disability leave, absenteeism, employee turnover, reduced productivity, reduced job satisfaction, and at times soaring legal expenses.”

Bullying often extends to isolation from co-workers. The 2017 WBI survey found that 40% of co-workers who were aware of the bullying did nothing, 13% ostracized or avoided the targets, and only 10% publicly helped their co-workers.

Don’t deal with bullying alone, Faas advised. Find someone either in your organization or outside to talk to and strategize with. And don’t become the bully, or a disgruntled employee, from frustration, he said.

Solutions: The healing power of naming

WBI’s website offers a “3-Step Target Action Plan” that includes:

  • Naming what is happening to you and legitimizing it. According to WBI, choosing a name—such as bullying or psychological harassment—offsets being told that you don’t have a problem.
  • Taking time off to heal and plan. WBI lists five specific actions the target can take during this time, including launching a counterattack that includes preparing a business case for stopping the bully.
  • Making your case against the bully. Present your case to the highest-ranking manager who is not loyal to the bully that it is too expensive to keep the bully on. Stick to the bottom line, not emotions. If the manager sides with the bully, “you will have to leave the job for your health’s sake,” WBI says. In some cases, however, you may be giving them what they need to purge a difficult employee.

If you have to leave your job, hold your head up. If you leave “shrouded in silent shame,” says WBI, it will only take you longer to rebound, get a new job, and restore your health.

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About The Author

Jan Arzooman is a proofreader, copyeditor, and writer in AMA’s creative services/marketing department. She has worked in editorial for more than 20 years. Arzooman also is a visual artist.

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