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How to Deal With the Workplace Bully

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Frank Kalman for Talent Management magazine. To check out all the resources and sign up for a free subscription to the TM and/or Chief Learning Officer magazines published by MedfiaTec, please click here.

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About a third of the U.S. workforce has fallen victim to workplace bullying. Learning to mitigate the problem means creating a more open work environment and crafting a stern anti-bullying policy.

The image of the schoolyard bully is heavily ingrained in our culture. Name a television show centered on American youth within the last half century, and it’s more than likely that at least one episode will be dedicated to the smaller, scrawnier kid doing his very best to avoid — or in some instances, defeat — the intimidating figure.

While the notion of the big, bad bully has been spotlighted in a number of television shows and movies, the practice in real life is undeniably serious. At the school level, instances of bullying have been attributed with causing a range of societal harms: absenteeism, violence, youth suicide and the like.

Although constant attention is given to youth-related bullying at schools, the less-talked-about form of bullying is that which occurs in the workplace.

According to a 2010 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute, a research firm and consultancy on the subject, 35 percent of U.S. workers — or an estimated 53.5 million Americans — have experienced some form of bullying in the workplace, while another 15 percent claimed to have witnessed it.

“[It’s] epidemic; however, it is still a primarily un-discussable topic in organizations, and that’s why so many people are driven out in silence and without acknowledgement,” said Gary Namie, the director of the Workplace Bullying Institute and a trained social psychologist and business consultant.

Different from workplace harassment, which is generally considered a form of illegal discrimination, bullying is “often directed at someone a bully feels threatened by,” according to an April 2011 report by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries titled Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior:  What Everyone Needs to know.

“The target often doesn’t even realize when they are being bullied because the behavior is covert, through trivial circumstances and isolating actions that occur behind closed doors … While harassment is illegal, bullying in the workplace is not,” the report states.

In fact, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is four times more prevalent at work than harassment.

“We define it as abusive conduct — health-harming, abusive conduct that takes the form of repeated mistreatment [or] verbal abuse or threats, intimidation or humiliation,” Namie said.

Aside from the negative impact workplace bullying has on people — high stress, absence, reduced self-esteem, depression, sleep problems — bullying can cause turnover in an organization as well as a loss of productivity. High costs associated with investigations of potential ill treatment or, in some cases, legal action is also common.

The Workplace Bullying Institute breaks workplace bullying into different categories.

• The “screaming meanies”:  These office bullies may be yelling or cursing at their target in public. Namie dubbed this the “Bobby Knight” approach in reference to the famously irate and emotional former head coach of Indiana University’s men’s basketball team.

• The constant critic: This individual tries behind closed doors to distort the appraisal or evaluation of a particular employee, claiming that the target is incompetent. “That starts to shatter the person’s sense of integrity and they’ll fall apart in a matter of a few months,” Namie said.

• The “control freak”: Oftentimes bullies deem themselves the “gatekeeper” to all resources; they in turn bully by refusing to allow access to these resources to certain employees, potentially hindering those employees’ work performance as a result.

This begs the question: Why hasn’t more attention been placed on the issue? For one, bullying isn’t technically illegal, and in many of the cases may be difficult to detect — the culprit will almost always deny any accusation. But another reason may be political: Those in management positions often end up taking on the role of the bully, so employees may be afraid to report instances they deem as bullying so as not to lose favor with their superiors.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@talentmgt.com.

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