Bullying directly or indirectly affects a large segment of the workforce. A 2014 national survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) reports that 27 percent of respondents have experienced bullying while another 21 percent have observed it. Bullying is manifested in a variety of ways from overt behaviors to subtle insults. Its economic costs may reach the hundreds of billions of dollars annually, a number which cannot begin to capture the untold psychological costs victims incur. If left unchecked, bullying both corrodes and corrupts. Organizational and social justice require confronting this malady, and a bottom-line rationale exists for prevention, mitigation, and treatment.
The WBI defines workplace bullying as a “systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction.” Bullying occurs in the form of acts—overt or covert—that threaten, humiliate, or intimidate, including verbal abuse and interference with one’s ability to perform work properly. According to the WBI, a majority of the perpetrators of bullying occupy positions of authority—they are bosses [however, peers and subordinators are also potential perpetrators who should not be underestimated in the potential harm they can inflict].
The WBI survey also reveals that most organizations reportedly sweep incidents of bullying under the rug. Moreover, victims who come forward may often be subject to retaliation, including forced exit or termination. Being a whistleblower or confronting the bully, particularly one in a superior position, carries high risks. This is why an untold share of the victims never come forward with their plight.
Environmental, organizational, and individual factors contribute to bullying incidents. An economic downturn may necessitate budget cuts and reductions in force that encourage internecine warfare in organizations, resulting in aggressive behaviors to protect turf, position, and power. Organizational leaders themselves are sometimes the biggest perpetrators of bullying, sending a signal that such is tolerated: a bullying-friendly culture results. These organizations and others may simply choose to stay closed-minded to the potential harm being done. At the level of the individual, some personalities are by nature more aggressive, confrontational, or devious. Some are even simply pathological or sadistic; these bullies relish their opportunities to demean, destroy, or marginalize.
The negative consequences of bullying are inescapably high and wide. Productivity is lowered. Quality suffers. Turnover and absenteeism rise. Engagement withers. Grievances, legal complaints, and litigation increase. Creativity and innovation recede.
Why, then, do so many organizations seem to tolerate bullying? One reason, as mentioned, is that leaders may be the biggest abusers. Another is ignorance (though this is hardly an excuse). A third possible explanation is the temptation to circle the wagons and protect managerial ranks and avoid adverse publicity. A fourth is the encouragement of a “tough guy, macho” culture. These plausible explanations, however, do not justify organizational tolerance of bullying.
Workers, regardless of the pressures of rapid change, global competition, economic misfortune, or disruptive technologies, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone connected to the workplace has an obligation to demonstrate civility. Exhibiting civility often requires patience, listening, understanding, and hard work, but it is worth the effort.
What can organizations do to prevent and mitigate the negative effects of bullying?
1. Set a policy of NO TOLERANCE—from the top-down and even among star performers;
2. Screen out those with a reputation for bullying or who show tendencies in the hiring process;
3. Punish perpetrators;
4. Set civility as an ethical standard and educate and train accordingly;
5. Provide a mechanism for victims to come forward without fear of retaliation;
6. Encourage victims to get proper treatment for physiological and psychological harm.
ONE FINAL POINT: Information and disclosure are powerful tools to use to combat bullies. My experience as a researcher on workplace conflict and as a management consultant leads me to believe that most workplace bullies are cowards. They fear being revealed. While they may be outwardly brutish, they are inwardly insecure with low self-esteem. They use bullying to compensate for their weaknesses. Victims should in no way feel embarrassed or ashamed. The bully should be the one to suffer. I feel fortunate to have known many leaders who do not tolerate bullying and set the right example.
*Marick F. Masters is a Professor of Business and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.