Offices in corporate America nowadays elicit many sights and sounds: phones ringing, keyboards typing, desks with multiple computer monitors illuminating employees’ faces as they go about their workday. And in an era focused on collaboration and open workspaces, traditional components are likely supplemented with shared desks, exercise balls and informal meeting rooms packed with plush couches and stocked kitchens.
Another often-viewed site in the workplace is bullying. In a recent survey of more than 2,000 corporate employees by leadership development and research firm VitalSmarts, 96 percent of respondents said they had witnessed bullying at work (Editor’s note: The author works at the firm).
Yet bullying in the workplace is often hard to define. When psychologists study bullying among children, they tend to define it as repetitive aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Researchers have been known to further divide bullying into two types: physical and emotional.
Based on these definitions, boys tend to engage in physical bullying: threats, intimidation, hitting, shoving and tripping. Girls are more likely to employ emotional bullying: excluding, gossiping, humiliating and withdrawing friendship.
Research has shown that male physical bullying tends to decline as they reach their middle teenage years, only to be replaced with emotional bullying. Female emotional bullying tends to decline in the middle teenage years but only a little.
Most of the researchers who study bullying in the workplace, however, use a definition that focuses exclusively on physical bullying. These researchers have looked at things like intimidation, physical abuse and unwarranted punishment, not emotional bullying.
By overlooking emotional bullying, researchers tend to underestimate the form of bullying that takes place at work.To address this potential omission, VitalSmarts created a survey that addressed workplace bullying more broadly to include emotional as well as physical.
The survey’s results showed both forms of bullying take place in the workplace. In terms of physical bullying, 27 percent of respondents said they work with someone who browbeats, threatens or intimidates others, and 4 percent said they work with someone who physically intimidates orassaults others.
As one description offered by a survey respondent said: “A friend and colleague of mine reported sexual harassment. Afterward, some of the people in her department made life very miserable for her — the cold shoulder, talking against her, turning new employees against her, excluding her and even physically assaulting her.”
Emotional bullying is far more common at work, according to the survey. Roughly 50 percent of respondents said they work with someone who is overly controlling or autocratic; 46 percent said they work with someone who is sarcastic, cutting,demeaning or offensive; 45 percent said they work with someone who gives people the silent treatment, excludes people or gives people the cold shoulder; and 41 percent said they work with someone who spreads gossip, negative rumors or other misinformation to hurt others.
One response that highlights emotional bullying: “This bully was a longtime secretary to one of the firm’s attorneys. I was the receptionist. The bully took an immediate dislike to me, and set out to sabotage me in as many ways as possible, including bad-mouthing me to the other administrative staff, giving me the silent treatment, and refusing to cooperate when I needed her help.”
While physical bullying has heavily declined from the days when labor-intensive production facilities would often be the site of fistfights among workers, the cost of emotional bullying is still significant and disruptive. According to the VitalSmarts survey, 1 in 5 respondents said that coping with a bully costs them seven or more hours per week in extra work. Based on the U.S. government’s average national wage of roughly $44,000, this translates to almost $8,000 a year in lost productivity per employee.
The reason this bullying persists is because people tend to avoid bullies, rather than address their bad behavior, according to the survey (Figure 1).
So how can talent managers train workers to stop workplace bullying? The following are things they should tell their employees to do.
Document the facts:Keep a record of bullying incidents. Note the times, places, circumstances, witnesses, the bully’s actions and the effects of these actions. Avoid generalizations. For example, instead of writing, “She was insulting and abusive,” write, “She called me a meathead and told me I had to ask her permission to go to the bathroom.” Actual quotes are more powerful, harder to deny and easier for witnesses to corroborate.
Ensure your safety: Speaking up always involves some risk, but don’t ever put physical safety in danger. At the same time, don’t let fears prevent action. Ask, “What’s likely to happen if I don’t speak up?” Make a realistic assessment of the worst-case scenarios for speaking up or not. Depending on the assessment, you may decide to speak directly to the bully, talk to a manager or HR professional or talk to the bully with a third party present.
Decide what you really want: Ask what long-term success would look like. If the bully stops bad behavior, would that be enough, or do you need compensation or to see the bully punished? The question is, “What do you want long term for yourself, for the other person and for the organization?”
Have the right conversation:The term “bullying” implies a pattern of abuse, not a single incident. Make sure to talk about the pattern, instead of arguing about individual incidents. The bully may see only the incidents, not the pattern. And the bully is likely to try to justify his or herbehavior in each incident. Make sure there are facts related to enoughincidents to make the pattern clear.
Start with facts. Begin by describing two or three documented incidents. Select incidents that illustrate the pattern, and use verbatim quotes whenever possible. Avoid hot words, labels or accusations. For example, don’t describe the person as mean, vindictive or even as a bully. Instead, stick closely to the facts. The facts have more credibility than opinions, so let them carry the weight.
Tell your story. Explain how the incidents fit together. These stories are the judgments, conclusions and explanations you have about the facts. This is the point in the conversation where you make pattern clear. This is also the point where reasonable people may disagree. You need to have enough facts to justify your story. At the same time, be open to the idea that others may see a different story in the same set of facts. Before the conversation, imagine you were an unbiased outsider or maybe the bully’s friend. How would you evaluate the facts?
Explain the consequences. Describe the effects the bullying behavior is having on your performance and the performance of others. Again, try to be as specific as possible. Rather than saying, “People feel they have to walk on eggshells,” say, “People have stopped asking for your help with customer complaints because they think you don’t listen to their side of the problem.” Emphasize business, rather than personal effects. You’re not trying to become friends; you just want a positive, productive workplace. However, if the effects include legal consequences, such as harassment lawsuits, make sure those are clear.
Get a commitment. Get a specific commitment from the bully. This commitment should include what the bully will stop or start doing and how you will follow up. Understand that patterns of bad behavior are difficult to change. The bully will struggle and will slip up from time to time. These slip-ups will test whether the commitment is real. Talk about the likelihood of slip-ups in advance, and discuss how to deal with them. For example, a physician who had a history of intimidating nurses asked them to remind him if he slipped up. He said, “I’d like you to use my first name. Call me Joe. But, if you see me slipping up, call me Dr. Smith. That will be our signal.”
Finally, be optimistic about changing the bully’s behavior. The interesting truth is that many bullies don’t know they are bullies. The term “bully” has become so pejorative that few imagine it could apply to them. And yet, when the pervasiveness of the problem and the many forms it takes are observed, it’s reasonable to conclude that many people are engaging in bullying behavior.
While the existence of extreme, even criminal, bullies is real, most bullying is probably the result of short tempers and short deadlines. Realizing that bullies aren’t always intending to be bullies humanizes them. Anyone could be seen as a bully on a bad day.