Tone at the Top: Ethical Dilemma
MBAs, Money, and Mother Nature: The Motivation To Be Sustainable

Workplace Bullying Advice

What to Do if You Are the Target of Workplace Bullying

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s) including physical and emotional stress. The purpose of this blog is to explore types of bullying and what you can do if you feel bullied.

Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and injustice in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work. Whereas aggression may involve a single act, bullying involves repeated attacks against the target, creating an on-going pattern of behavior. “Tough” or “demanding” bosses are not necessarily bullies as long as they are respectful and fair and their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high yet reasonable expectations for working safely.

Workplace bullying is a form of aggression and the bullying can be both obvious and subtle. Bullying is usually considered to be a pattern of behavior where one or more incidents will help show that bullying is taking place. Here are some examples identified by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Check to see if you are being bullied in the workplace.

  • spreading malicious rumors, gossip, or innuendo that is not true
  • excluding or isolating someone socially
  • intimidating a person
  • undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work
  • physically abusing or threatening abuse
  • removing areas of responsibilities without cause
  • constantly changing work guidelines
  • establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail
  • withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information
  • making jokes that are 'obviously offensive' by spoken word or e-mail
  • intruding on a person's privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
  • assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavorable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)
  • underwork - creating a feeling of uselessness
  • yelling or using profanity
  • criticizing a person persistently or constantly
  • belittling a person's opinions
  • unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment.

It is sometimes hard to know if bullying is happening at the workplace. Many studies acknowledge that there is a "fine line" between strong management and bullying so some of the behaviors mentioned above may not be judged as bullying by the appropriate authorities in an organization. For example, criticizing a person persistently or constantly might be viewed as making comments that are objective and are intended to provide constructive feedback; these may be deemed as intended to assist the employee with their work.

If you are not sure an action or statement could be considered bullying, you can use the "reasonable person" test. Would most people consider the action unacceptable? This helps but bullying still is somewhat subjective and can be said to be “in the eyes of the beholder.”

If you believe you are the target of a workplace bully, speak to the person doing the bullying. Similar to sexual harassment in the workplace that I have blogged about before, the first step with bullying is to make your feelings known to the bullier that it is unwanted and unwelcome behavior.

While talking to other employees may seem to be a logical step, be careful who you choose to discuss the matter with as that person might be pressured by the bullier down the road to tell the latter's side of the story. What else can you do? Be sure to keep a log to record when each incident occurred; what was said or done in response to it; and your feelings on the matter. It is a good idea to give a copy of the log to a trusted advisor who can independently attest to the facts down the road if that becomes necessary. This is similar to the protective step I have recommended in a previous blog for a whistle-blower.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, a nonprofit research and training organization, workplace bullying is not an unusual problem: About 50% of the U.S. workforce reports either having been bullied by someone at work or having witnessed someone else being mistreated, according to a survey of 4,210 American adults that WBI conducted last year.

In terms of gender, WBI reports that women appear to be at greater risk of becoming a bullying target, as 57% of those who reported being targeted for abuse were women. Men are more likely to participate in aggressive bullying behavior (60%), however when the bully is a woman her target is more likely to be a woman as well (71%).

The U.S. is well behind other countries in introducing legislation to protect those bullied in the workplace including Australia, Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom.  Unlike sexual harassment that became an official workplace offense in 1980 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued regulations defining sexual harassment and stating it was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no such legislation exists for bullying.  Even though comprehensive workplace bullying legislation has not been passed by the federal government or by any U.S. state, since 2003 many state legislatures have considered bills and as of April 2009, 16 U.S. states have proposed legislation. One excellent resource for additional information on workplace bullying is the website of Bully Free at Work.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 9, 2012