The media and lawmakers have been abuzz with talk of bullying
in schools; but bullying doesn't end when you graduate. It is alive
and well in the workplace, too.
According to research by the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health, 25 percent of workplaces contain some degree of
bullying. Recent CareerBuilder research reported that one in four
of 6,500 survey respondents say they are bullied at work. A study
by the Employment Law Alliance (a group of 3,000 attorneys
worldwide) found that 44 percent of employees report being bullied.
What is it?
By definition, bullying is systematic and repeated aggressive
behavior that creates an unhealthy power imbalance and causes
severe psychological trauma for targets and witnesses. Bullying
behaviors are often covert, making it difficult for targets to
describe and for managers to identify. Behaviors include the
- aggressive communication: social isolation, yelling,
intimidation, making threats, aggressive body language, and
invasion of personal space
- humiliation: public scathing, gossip, and persistent criticism
- manipulation of work: excessive micromanagement, erratic
punishment, assigning work far above the targets competency level,
perpetually changing assignments without reason, and assigning
unmanageable workloads and deadlines.
Many of us have probably experienced these tactics at some point
during our careers. But when one person targets another and
harasses him regularly for an extended period of time, these
behaviors take a toll on the employees self-esteem and performance,
as well as the workplace culture overall.
Effects of such bullying for the individual include increased
depression, anxiety, and absenteeism, as well as decreased
motivation, quality of work, job satisfaction, and ability to meet
goals. The organization suffers when communication ceases, problems
can't be solved, people can't learn, gossip abounds, and stress
prevents effective decision making. Employees who witness the
behaviors—even if they don't feel victimized by bullying
themselves—lose faith in management, and their work suffers, too.
These consequences ultimately hurt the bottom line.
For workplace learning and performance professionals who are being
asked to demonstrate return-on-investment and return-on-expectation
(ROE), bullying is a significant problem. An individual cannot
learn or perform well in a negative environment where she suffers
fear and anxiety. Employees must feel safe to disagree with one
another, ask questions, make mistakes, share ideas, and take risks.
What can you do?
The solution to workplace bullying requires a concerted effort by
the entire organization, with senior leadership driving the
initiative, but don't wait for the C-suite to make the first move.
The following are some practical steps that you can begin to
Set an example. As a person responsible for spurring learning in
your organization, it is important that others can learn from your
everyday communication style. You will not be a successful trainer
if people are afraid of you, and you can't hold employees
responsible for respectful workplace behavior if you're not
practicing the same. Always remember that your word choice, tone of
voice, and body language are vital to building a civil workplace.
Address the issue with decision makers. Workplace bullying doesn't
exist in a vacuum. Bullying is a result of organizational norms and
culture. While it can happen anywhere, it tends to be more active
in workplaces that have high levels of competition and bureaucracy,
make frequent changes through downsizing or workgroup
transformation, employ numerous tenured individuals, and have
managers who demonstrate or ignore bullying behaviors.
Ignoring bullying is fairly common, unfortunately. CareerBuilder
found that 62 percent of employers did nothing when receiving
complaints about bullying. A 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute and
Zogby International study found that 53 percent of bullying targets
filed a formal complaint, but in 44 percent of the cases, the
employer did nothing. In 18 percent of the cases, the employer made
the problem worse by providing the wrong solution.
If you are being pressured to demonstrate ROI and ROE, but the
culture is damaging your chances of progress, talk to decision
makers about bullying being an obstacle to learning effectiveness.
Use training success as a business case for eradicating bullying.
Talk about bullying in pre-existing training programs. Bullying is
not harassment, but you can include it in your harassment training
if you're not ready to create a comprehensive anti-bullying program.
Also, be sure to incorporate anti-bullying curriculum in your
management training and leadership development programs. Talk to
leaders about eliminating bullying from their own behavior, and
teach them how to identify bullying among employees and handle
Develop ground rules. Ask employees to develop a list of desirable
and undesirable workplace behaviors and incorporate the list into a
healthy-workplace company policy. Employees respond well to lists
that tell them what they should do (as opposed to focusing on what
they shouldn't do). You also can turn the identified behaviors into
Include positive workplace practices in rewards systems. Along with
workplace bullying awareness training, consider training programs
that teach a variety of supporting topics, including conflict
management, positive thinking, negotiation, assertiveness, empathy,
self-examination, resilience, perception, positive language,
gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness.
Of course, simply providing the training is not enough. Attach
these interpersonal relationship competencies to goals and rewards
within your performance management system.
Charge each department with developing positive workplace action
plans. Sponsor a program that asks each department to develop
action plans to create a healthy workplace culture. Attach the
program's success to the department manager's performance
measurements and possibly the employees, too.
Review your performance management processes. Many HR managers
believe that bullying is an excuse used by poor performers who
simply don't like being told that their performance is below
standard. However, research shows that this scenario is rare in
comparison to the prevalence of actual workplace bullying.
To avoid this trap, review your performance management process.
Does it require that managers set specific goals for low
performers? What resources are given to under-performers to help
them improve? What follow-up is required from management? In
essence, don't allow such false assumptions to flourish. If your
performance management processes are effective, you will know if a
problem is the result of bullying or poor performance.
Avoid traditional conflict management as a resolution strategy.
Over time, a bully's aggressive behavior becomes more frequent and
belligerent, pushing targets into a state of helplessness. Bullying
should not be confused with conflict; conflict is disagreement, and
bullying is psychological abuse. Tread lightly if considering
mediation, conflict management coaching, or traditional
communication skills training.
Enroll aggressive employees in coaching or mentoring programs. If
an employee is identified as a bully through a 360-degree review,
informal complaint, or formal investigation, offer her a chance to
learn from a high-performing leader who can set her straight.
Recruiting external consultants who specialize in aggressive
employee behavior is also a viable option.
The bottom line
As with any culture change initiative, eradicating bullying and
replacing it with a civil work environment requires systematic
action plans. While training alone cannot end this problem, it is a
good place to start.
Regulatory agencies and lawmakers are beginning to pay greater
attention to workplace bullying. To date, the Healthy Workplace
Bill has gained more than 200 legislative sponsors in 23 states
Moreover, the benefits of a healthy, safe, positive, and supportive
working environment are endless. This type of workplace facilitates
a desire to learn, motivates quality performance, inspires
progressive ideas, decreases turnover, minimizes workplace
politics, improves internal communication and relationships with
customers, reduces stress, advances the health of the organization
and its employees, and stimulates excitement to achieve greatness.