Workplace bullying: Every day is Monday

By Lynn Bentley
Staff writer

“It’s like every day is Monday,” said one executive assistant who works for an insurance firm in New York City.  “I just dread going to work and my work days seem endless.” She feels she is the target of a workplace bully. Work projects get delayed by her boss but the delay is publicly blamed on her.  She will often come to work an hour or two at his request only to find that he hasn’t completed his part of the project or, worse, he isn’t coming in at all.   Conversely, he will impulsively demand that she stay late, and if she can’t due to other commitments, he will complain about her lack of dedication to her job.  He has taken his complaints to HR many times.

This executive assistant is one of an estimated 53.5 million Americans or 35% of the U.S. workforce who are bullied at work each year, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, an organization created 15 years ago to study workplace bullying and advocate for its remedy.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, workplace bullying is defined as “persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behavior or unfair actions directed at another individual, causing the recipient to feel threatened, abused, humiliated or vulnerable.”

“A long time ago, I worked for someone who sexually harassed me,” said the assistant.  “I would rather be sexually harassed than this.  There are clear rules about that and laws against it.  I am so stressed out, it is making me ill.  I have been sicker this past year than I have ever been in my entire life.”

The detrimental physical effects of bullying in the workplace are well documented.  In a 2003 Workplace Bullying Institute Study, for instance, 45% of those who are targets of workplace bullying experienced “stress-related health problems, debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression (39%), and even post-traumatic stress disorder (30% of women; 21% of men)”.

Furthermore, the stress of workplace bullying takes place not just once but over time.  A 2007 Zogby International poll found that “73% of bullied targets endure bullying for more than 6 months, 44% for at least one year.” Zogby International, a market research and public opinion firm,  has partnered with the Workplace Bullying Institute in its research.

“Workplace bullying is an organizational cultural problem,” said Catherine Mattice, president of Civility Partners, LLC, in San Diego, Calif., a professional consulting and training firm that helps companies build a positive and civil workplace.

“Any time you have an organization where people do not get along,” Mattice said, “It hurts them and then it hurts the teamwork and the ability to communicate and that hurts a company’s bottom line.”

In a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 51% of the companies surveyed reported incidents of bullying and 87% of the respondents (most of them HR professionals) believe that HR should handle bullying complaints. You can see a power point of this here.

HR departments of large and small companies have been tasked to develop and implement strategies and policies to prevent all types of workplace abuse including race, sex and age discrimination, and sexual harassment.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management report, however, 44% of the companies do not currently have a “formal (written, documented) workplace bullying policy.”  Of the 40% that do have a policy, workplace bullying is included in another policy.

Employee policy handbooks have become so extensive that most companies will require new hires to review the policy handbook on their own and sign an affidavit indicating that they have read, reviewed and agreed to abide by the policies.

“Most of the onboarding functions are done online now,” said Shari Funk, an HR generalist at Citigroup for 14 years. “I touch on the things that I think are really important to highlight to people like electronic communication processes, making sure that they are using email appropriately, and behavior in the office.”

Not all HR professionals believe workplace bullying is a problem.

“When I speak to some HR professionals or at some HR meetings,” said Mattice, “there are inevitably a few in the audience who don’t just disagree with me, they really aggressively disagree with me.”

In fact, Mattice will be presenting a workshop entitled Seeking Civility: Understanding & Eradicating Workplace at the June 2012 Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference and exposition in Atlanta.  Other workshops at the conference will include workplace conflict and creating a healthy workplace environment.

“Workplace bullying is the new thing,” said Mattice, “as businesses start using the term more frequently the resistance will stop.”

But workplace bullying has a long history. It’s just been called other things like harassment, psychological terrorization, horizontal violence or just conflict. In Europe and America, it is also known as mobbing when two or more people join in bullying the target.

Psychologists and therapists in Europe during the 1980s were the first to take notice of and study the connection between bullying behaviors at work and the psychological damage they saw in their patients. Sweden and England in particular were in the vanguard of this research.

The first book devoted to the subject, “Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It” (1992), was written by British broadcaster and journalist Andrea Adams. Tim Field, who in 2001 would co-author the book “Bullycide: Death at Playtime,” also in the United Kingdom, which brought media attention to childhood bullying and suicide, first campaigned against bullying at work. before he turned his attention to schools

After a breakdown he attributed to being bullied by a colleague, Field started his anti-bullying campaign with a workplace bullying website called the UK National Workplace Hotline which, he reported, has received more than one million visits since ts inception until just 2005.

These and other anti-workplace bullying advocates have led to strong legislation against workplace bullying and mobbing in Europe, again particularly in Sweden and England.

In America, the Workplace Bullying Institute was created by Gary and Ruth Namie in the late 1990s as “the first and only organization that integrates all aspects of workplace bullying: self-help advice for individuals, personal coaching, research, public education, union assistance, training for professionals, employer consulting, and legislative advocacy.”

Through their efforts, legislators are beginning to take notice.  On May 12, 2010, New York became the ninth state to pass a workplace bullying bill.  The bill passed in the New York Senate, 45-16, but has stalled in the house.

>Sponsored by New York State Sen. Diane J. Savino (D), The Healthy Workplace Bill would extend protection to employees who work for private or public companies and who are subjected to an abusive work environment. The law makes the bully the responsible party, though companies can be held liable if they do nothing to prevent or stop the bullying.  The bill also makes retaliation for the complaint actionable.

The Healthy Workplace Bill also recognizes the bottom-line effects of bullying for companies.  It reads in part that “abusive work environments have serious consequences for employers, including reduced employee productivity and morale, higher turnover, and absenteeism rates and significant increases in medical and workers’ compensation claims”.

For now, there is little a bullied employee can do apart from reporting the situation to HR.

“I do counsel the target to at least say no one time and stand up for themself at least one time” Mattice said.

According to Mattice, the first question HR will ask is whether the target has addressed the behavior with the other person.  HR will want to see that the target has tried to work out the problems first before it gets involved.

“I also counsel targets to document everything that happens in a journal and if there is any tangible evidence like emails that they should collect those things,” Mattice said. The journal and evidence can then be taken to HR.

“I tell them to focus just on what is happening not what they feel about it.  The journal is not meant to share emotions.”

One Response to Workplace bullying: Every day is Monday

  1. Targets, victims and witnesses of bullying have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment) when subject to repeated and obvious acts of aggression, spreading malicious rumours, excluding someone socially or from certain projects, undermining or impeding a person’s work or opinions, insulting a person’s habits, attitudes, or private life and intruding upon a person’s privacy. Others include being rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting impossible deadlines. Although bullying is recognized as detrimental to occupational health, there is little political or corporate interest in stopping it.

    In schoolyard bullying, the bullies are children, whose behaviour is controlled by the leaders, i.e. the school administration. In workplace bullying, however, the bullies are often the leaders themselves, i.e., the managers and supervisors. Therefore, reporting a bully to the HR dept, for example, may expose the target/victim to the risk of even more bullying, slower career advancement, or even termination, on the grounds of being a “troublemaker!”.

    Workplace bullying has severe consequences, including reduced effectiveness and high employee turnover. An employee who suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying can confront the bully, report the bully to the HR department or to the trade union, if any, or bring a claim of negligence and/or a personal injury claim against both the employer and the abusive employee as joint respondents in the claim. If the law does not persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying, the economic reality will persuade them. Training sessions can help when combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of some individuals, who may need counselling.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

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