“Abuse at work is the only form of abuse in America that is not yet taboo. All other forms have been condemned – abuse of children, spouses, partners – while bullying at work is still considered a normal, inevitable or even a necessary business practice.”
— Workplace Bullying Institute

The 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey reported that 30% of Americans have been a victim of abusive conduct at work; another 19 percent have witnessed it; 49 percent are affected by it; and 66 percent are aware that workplace bullying happens. Meanwhile, 43.2 percent of remote employees experience bullying, which is jarring considering how many of us have been working remotely since the pandemic. If the majority of Americans are aware of workplace bullying, then why so often does it go unaddressed?

One of the main reasons bullying goes unaddressed in the workplace is that we don’t have enough of an understanding of how it manifests. When we mainly associate bullying with kids in the schoolyard, it can be hard to picture it happening in the office. But bullying comes in many forms. By shedding light on the nuances of bullying, we can better address the problem in an effective, lasting way.

Defining Bullying in the Workplace

Workplace bullying, as defined by workplacebullying.org, is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of another employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or some combination of the above.”

In a review of past research and literature on the subject of bullying, Scandinavian researcher Sta˚le Einarsen identified how different scholars and clinicians have defined bullying. While various terms other than “bullying” have been used in the West (i.e. harassment, scapegoating, mobbing, psychological terror, health-endangering leadership, workplace trauma, and petty tyranny), Einarsen notes that the majority of these definitions have a common characteristic: repeated and enduring negative acts.

The Cost of Bullying

Being bullied at work has physical, psychological, social, and professional consequences including the following:

  • Physical illness
  • Burnout
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Loss of social connections, professional connections, and trust

Bullying can also affect organizations by way of:

  • Loss of time, productivity, and revenue
  • Employee turnover costs
  • Absence and healthcare costs
  • Legal action
  • Reputational and brand damage
  • Limited talented pool

Myths About Power Dynamics

Another documented hallmark of bullying is an imbalance of power, which is mostly associated with a superior who bullies a subordinate. However, power imbalances can manifest in different directions.

For example, demographic characteristics like gender, race, disability, and age can affect power dynamics. Further, those with a history of trauma may have a harder time standing up for themselves, thus making them a more likely target of bullying.

The following describes the different directions in which bullying can go:

  • Downward: a superior bullies their subordinate
  • Upward: a subordinate bullies their superior
  • Horizontal: an employee bullies another employee of equal status
  • Mixed-direction: a combination of employees of different statuses forms a clique and bullies an employee or employees

Overt vs. Covert Bullying

A major problem with how organizations address bullying is their tendency to only keep an eye out for overt bullying — the type accompanied by hostile behavior (i.e. screaming, throwing things, harassment, etc.). Meanwhile, instances of covert bullying (i.e. spreading rumors or lies or withholding important information) can be occurring without management being aware.

Ineffective Interventions According to Experts

According to the Harvard Business Review and workplacebullying.org, the following are ineffective approaches to workplace bullying:

  • Reactive approach: This approach addresses bullying after the fact, which has been proven to be a far less effective intervention than prevention.
  • Placing the burden of proof and anti-bullying work on the target: This approach fails to consider that bullying victims are experiencing trauma and having to revisit or prove that the bullying took place can be extremely triggering for the victim.
  • Individual-level focus: This approach emphasizes the personality traits of the bully and victims (i.e., assertiveness training for victims and anger management for bullies) but ignores the systemic traits of workplace bullying.
  • A focus on overt and hostile bullying: This approach supports a myopic view of bullying but ignores the prevalence of covert bullying tactics.

An Effective, Systemic Approach to Addressing Bullying

The key to addressing bullying is to understand its manifestations and use a systemic approach to prevention for each type:

Hostile bullying

  • When looking to hire or promote someone into a leadership role, be sure to distinguish between confidence and competence; confidence without competence often means arrogance, which can signal underlying insecurity and hostility.
  • Train employees in nonviolent communication as part of the onboarding process.
  • Make efforts to reduce stress across the organization.

Covert bullying

  • Use transparent, fair, equitable, and legitimate ways of deciding when and to whom to give rewards.
    Consider forming a committee dedicated to justice in organizational decision-making.
  • Use asynchronous tools like shared documents and task boards to prevent people from stealing credit or making fabricated claims about others’ work.
  • Use consistent and valid recruitment mechanisms to screen talent for problem behaviors such as talking oneself up rather than supporting others.

Downward bullying

  • Distribute and carefully review anonymous 360 evaluations and culture assessments.
  • When reviewing feedback surveys from employees, read between the lines; for example, if an employee writes, “I understand my manager is under a lot of stress,” that may indicate a fear of speaking out about challenging dynamics (including bullying).

Upward bullying

  • When conducting interviews for a leadership position, offer multiple interpersonal scenarios, such as poor performance and aggressive behavior from subordinates.
  • Consider roleplaying instances of upward bullying. When a leader practices navigating these incidents, it gives them confidence, skills, and mental “scripts.”
  • Ensure that all grievance and complaint systems support supervisors, not just non-supervisory employees.

Horizontal and mixed-direction bullying

  • Avoid creating environments of unhealthy internal competition (i.e. “rank-and-yank” performance evaluation) that encourage cutthroat behavior.
  • Distribute rewards in fair and transparent ways and balance team-level and individual rewards.
    Ensure that cross-functional partnerships are grounded in shared metrics to incentivize collaboration.
  • Develop mechanisms to constructively air and address the natural tensions among organizations (i.e. having teams regularly convene in psychologically safe environments).

We Are Always Learning

Never underestimate how bullying, in all its manifestations, can affect your organization. As with any skill, effectively preventing and addressing workplace bullying may take practice. In your learning journey, you may even realize that instances of bullying have been misaddressed under your leadership. Rather than getting stuck in self-blame, lean into the process of learning and making changes that will foster a psychologically safe work environment for your team.

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