Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Study: Office Bullies Create Workplace 'Warzone'

This article should be a big heads-up not only for employees who pay in stress and illness and employers who pay in sick-days, but for every parent and teacher who observes a bully and says "Oh, kids will be kids." Those little playground fight-starters grow up to be office bullies, and it is not a pretty picture. In fact, it's pretty ugly, and bullying (being put-down, picked on, and laughed at) is one of the causes leading to teen suicides.

Study: Office Bullies Create Workplace 'Warzone'

Jeanna Bryner

LiveScience Staff Writer
LiveScience.com Tue Oct 31, 2006 5:00 PM ET

The office might be far from the playground, but it’s not off limits to bullies. From a screaming boss to snubbing colleagues, bullies can create a “war zone” in the workplace.

In a recent study, bullied employees likened their experiences to a battle, water torture, a nightmare or a noxious substance. Understanding the seriousness of workplace bullying and what it feels like to get bullied could help managers put the brakes on the behavior, shown to afflict 25 to 30 percent of employees sometime during their careers.

“Many Americans are familiar with sexual and racial harassment, but not generalized workplace bullying,” said study team member Sarah Tracy of Arizona State University. Bullying can lead to higher company costs including increased employee illness, use of sick days, and medical costs, ultimately affecting productivity, she added.

Workplace bullying can include “screaming, cursing, spreading vicious rumors, destroying the target’s property or work product, excessive criticism, and sometimes hitting, slapping, and shoving.” Subtle behaviors, such as silent treatment, disregard of requests and exclusion from meetings, count as bullying.

Bully icons

The scientists interviewed 17 women and 10 men ranging from 26 to 72 years old, who had experienced bullying. Often, people have trouble putting into words their emotions surrounding bully behavior. So the researchers analyzed the metaphors found throughout the participants’ descriptions of bullying.

More than any other metaphor, participants characterized bullying as a contest or battle, with a female religious educator saying, “I have been maimed. … I’ve been character assassinated.” Others expressed feeling “beaten, abused, ripped, broken, scared and eviscerated,” the researchers stated in the upcoming issue of the journal Management Communication Quarterly.

The bullies were described as two-faced actors, narcissistic dictators and devils, leading workers to feel like vulnerable children, slaves and prisoners in these situations. As one employee explained, "I feel like I have 'kick me' tattooed on my forehead."

Bully-proof office

How can you take the bite out of a bully-fied office? “An important first step of changing workplace bullying, is helping people to understand that it's more than just kid stuff,” Tracy told LiveScience.

Early intervention can nip bullying in the bud before it escalates into an established pattern, one resulting in high company costs. The problem is that most bully victims keep their mouths shut, whispering their horrid experiences to close friends rather than higher-ups. The use of metaphors, the researchers suggested, is more subtle and more likely to seep into conversations both public and private.

The scientists will continue examining the prevalence and impact of workplace bullying. In another research project, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Office Management, they found that out of more than 400 U.S. workers surveyed, 25 percent were bullied at work.


Anonymous said...

I seem to attract bullies, and have changed jobs on several occasions because of it. I like to think that I am a nice person with a strong work ethic. I have tried to be friendly with my co-workers, but twice at this last job I have been bullied, and the last time the boss refused to talk about it, and if I try to bring it up, she walks away, saying she won't talk about it. Ultimately, this behavior on the managers part has underwritten the bully's behavior, and believe me the behavior has escalated. Now, My car has been keyed, and an incident which I believe the bully instigated has happened at work. I have had it, and I want so bad to retaliate, but our workplace is closing, and getting away will be good. Although if I should need a reference, it will be difficult.

Michelle said...

Hi. Thanks for leaving a message, and good luck in your job hunting.

I am sorry you are having this problem, though I can certainly relate. I was bullied at my last job. It wasn't the only reason I left the job, but it sure contributed to my relief to be gone from a job I once really, really loved.

I totally believe the that the bullying behavior you experienced escalated after it was exposed. That happened in my case too, even though I had the support of my supervisor. My supervisor was on the side of supressing the bullying behavior of the other person, and convinced me I should confront the bully to discuss the behavior, which I did in a meeting of the three of us, me, the bully and my supervisor. I'm sure she assumed that once the behavior was exposed it would stop.

Instead it escalated because that's what bullys do, they "step it up" when they know they are "getting to" you. That is exactly what happened to me, but in my case the bully was careful to only engage in bullying when the supervisor wasn't around. Other people witnessed it, but there wasn't much they could do.

Unfortunately, this type of behavior will continue as long as society turns a blind eye to it, or silently underwrites it by allowing it to continue.

A word to Employers, if you want to stop work-place bullies, FIRE THEM. Nothing else will deliver the message that bullying will not be tolerated. Until that happens, the bullys will rule, and ruin, the workplace.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that last comment of yours. I just put in my notice today after being one of several victims of workplace bullying at a job I held for several years. My attempt to resolve the issue included going to a higher-up, changing my working schedule to avoid the bully, and finally, quitting. I think there will soon be an exit interview, to which I look forward. I included an official state document about workplace bullying in the envelope with my extremely gracious letter of notice.

Not that I truly expect anything will happen. The management never really seemed to understand the extent of the problem, nor really wanted to. While they seemed to sympathize (verbally), their actions indicated otherwise. I decided that the excuse that there would be no one to replace this very replaceable individual was simply a cop-out.

Nevertheless, I do believe they are feeling the effects (the high cost) of keeping around this bully. When it comes to the bottom line, that's wen action takes place. On account of employee relations and wellbeing? Never...

Michelle said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, and congratulations for getting out of a bad situation.

I think you are right about the employers/management; they don't want to know. The other side is that they don't want to have to justify, possibly in court, firing someone.

In my own case, I later learned that the person who bullied me also bullied, lied and spread vicious rumors about the person on the level just below my former supervisor. The unbelieveable part is that those two people had been friends and co-workers for many years, and yet the bully was kept on and allowed to continue! I still can't fathom why this bully was kept around....it wasn't a person with any especial irreplaceable skill.

I agree too with the sentiment that the bottom line is where action will take place, but unfortunaltey a lot of good people are lost before they hit that point.

Good luck, and again congratulations for getting out of that situation. Give them something to think about at your exit interview.