GM Recall Raises Ethical Questions
Women Must Stand up Against Workplace Harassment

What is and is not Workplace Bullying

What to do about Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is when one a person or group of people in a workplace single out another person for unreasonable, embarrassing, or intimidating treatment. Usually the bully is a person in a position in authority who feels threatened by the victim, but in some cases the bully is a co-worker who is insecure or immature. The Workplace Bullying Institute provides examples of what is and is not workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying can take many forms: 

  • Shouting or swearing at an employee or otherwise verbally abusing him or her
  • One employee being singled out for unjustified criticism or blame
  • An employee being excluded from company activities or having his or her work or contributions purposefully ignored
  • Language or actions that embarrass or humiliate an employee
  • Practical jokes, especially if they occur repeatedly to the same person 

There are also some things that are usually not considered workplace bullying: 

  • A manager who shouts at or criticizes all of his or her employees. While this is a sign of a bad manager and makes a workplace unpleasant, it is not bullying unless only one or a few individuals are being unjustifiably singled out.
  • A co-worker who is critical of everything, always takes credit for successes and passes blame for mistakes, and/or frequently makes hurtful comments or jokes about others. Unless these actions are directed at one individual, they represent poor social skills, but not bullying.
  • Negative comments or actions that are based on a person's gender, ethnicity, religion, or other legally protected status. This is considered harassment and, unlike bullying, is illegal in the United States and gives the victim legal rights to stop the behavior. 

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, up to a third of workers may be the victims of workplace bullying. About 20% of workplace bullying crosses the line into harassment. The New York Times found that about 60 of workplace bullies are men, and they tend to bully male and female employees equally. Female bullies, however, are more likely to bully other females. This may be because there is more pressure on females trying to succeed in male-dominated workplace, and more competition between females for promotions. 

Workplace bullying is also bad for business and can lead to:

  • High turnover, which is expensive for companies as they invest in hiring and training new employees only to lose them shortly thereafter, possibly to a competitor
  • Low productivity since employees are not motivated to do their best and are more often out sick due to stress-related illnesses
  • Lost innovations since the bully is more interested in attacking his or her victim than advancing the company, and the victims become less likely to generate or share new ideas
  • Difficulty hiring quality employees as word spreads that the company has a hostile work environment 

In some companies there is a company culture of workplace bullying. Usually companies do not purposefully support bullying, but they may develop a problem with it either through not taking workplace bullying seriously or by developing the habit of placing blame and fault finding instead of solving problems. In these companies, employees who make a case against bullies may find that the bullying only gets worse. In this situation, employees often have to either make the best of the situation or find different employment. 

The thing about work place bullying is, it’s been there all along. What’s different today is that it is wrong, and we know it.

According to a 2012 Career Builder Survey,  35% of workers said they have felt bullied at work, and 17% decided to quit their jobs because of the situation. The survey was conducted on online by market research company Harris Interactive and included 3,892 full-time, not self-employed, non-government workers over the age of 18.

Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, based in Bellingham, Wash., said the issue gets worse when fewer jobs are available, providing a person who feels they are experiencing the bullying with fewer escape routes. Given our stagnant economy, we must be increasingly vigilant about the possibility that workplace bullying exists.

What to do if you feel bullied?

Unless someone is being bullied because they are a member of a protected class — which is race, sex, disability and those other categories covered by discrimination law — or being bullied in retaliation for whistle-blowing or complaining about ethics violations, they probably fall between the cracks of existing employment protections,” according to David Yamada, professor of law and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School.

Though a person could try to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Yamada said that most such claims are dismissed by courts without a trial. In fact, lawyers sometimes advise clients to focus on finding a new job if their efforts to resolve the issue internally haven’t worked.

According to the American Psychological Association, severe bullying can lead to depression, anxiety and a variety of other health issues. Not only does it force out a perfectly good employee who is your victim, but it can harm the company’s bottom line because other people see it and it destroys their motivation to work in a place where they treat each other like that.

When confronted with a bully, the Workplace Bullying Institute suggests that the most effective action an employee can take is to make an unemotional pitch to the highest level supervisor he or she can. I agree someone who feels bullied must speak up whether while an employee of a company or after deciding to leave the organization. Workers that have been bullied have an ethical obligation to report it so that the company has an opportunity to take corrective action. Moreover, reporting may save others from the degrading nature of being bullied in the workplace.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 20, 2014