Workplace bullying is common. A 1996 UNISON survey found that two thirds of the workers had experienced or witnessed workplace bullying. What is more disturbing is that 74% of the targets reported that management knew about the bullying. Clearly just reporting the problem to managers frequently doesn’t work. The study also said that 83% of the bullies were managers! Interestingly, most bullying in the workplace is done by women. Of those bullied at work, 46% are women bullied by other women and 28% are men bullied by women1!
Several types of bullies have been identified. How you respond to the bully depends on which type you have encountered. “Opportunistic Bullies” tend to be very competitive, and very observant of signals in the environment. They are likely to be well connected to the chain of command, and will stop bullying as soon as the organization stops tolerating the harassing behavior. Chronic Bullies frequently have low self-esteem and use other’s misery as a way to elevate themselves. They are mean, nasty, and manipulative at work. Companies which overemphasize cutthroat competition frequently encourage chronic bullies. and sometime present them as leaders. Substance Abusing Bullies may be dangerous and threatening, depending on what substance they abuse. Some substances cause paranoia while others reduce inhibitions which prevent inappropriate behavior. Substance abusers are difficult to deal with because their decision making may be distorted by their substance use. Some experts include “Accidental Bullies” who are not aware of the impact their actions have on others. Their behavior is readily changed simply by bringing the hurtful impact of their behavior to their attention.
While bullying itself is hurtful to the target, it is even more painful when their colleagues refrain from defending them. Nobody wants to be the first to challenge a bully since they might then become the target of further bullying. Once the first person speaks up in their defense however, others are more likely to join in.
What can be done to change the situation so that a more positive climate is created in the workplace? The answer varies by situation, the type of bullying going on, etc. However, modifying the climate generally involves changing the system, not just one nasty person. When upper management is reluctant to get involved, it may be beneficial to demonstrate the negative impact of the bullying in terms of reduced praoductivity, higher staff turnover, etc. That becomes more challenging when the bully is the management, but not impossible. I’d enjoy discussing your situation on my blog, or providing more personalized consultation and training.
1 Namie, G., and Namie, R. ( 2000) The Bully at Work: What you can do to stop the hurt and reclaim your dignity on the job. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.