Sunday, November 17, 2013

Does Bullying Exist in the Workplace?

The national coverage of the bullying incident reported by a player on the Miami Dolphins football team continues to dominate the news. As this story unfolds, it appears that bullying is no longer happening only to high school students. Big, strong football players can become overwhelmed by it too.

As a doctoral student studying organizational leadership and as a former career coach to college students, I began to wonder why this phenomenon appears to be growing in businesses across America. According to a recent workplace survey, one in three people say they have encountered intense hostility and hazing in the workplace. Much of it goes undetected because people live in fear of losing their jobs. 

In many cases, the workplace bully exhibits very specific and consistent behaviors. These may include making fun of the employee's speech, looks or other physical attributes in front of others or making demeaning comments when the employee offers an opinion or attempts to contribute professionally. Often these behaviors are conducted in front of others which only adds to the humiliation. The unseen behaviors may involve stealing ideas, criticizing every task or amplifying minor errors that are not business or task critical.

Workplace bullying has been shown to affect individual productivity as well as the bullied individual's physical and mental health. The bullied person can sink into isolating actions and depression which only makes them less pleasant to be around and gives the bully further ammunition. Productivity may decrease due to the bullied person taking more sick days. When the bullied employee is at work, errors may increase due to the lack of sleep and emotional fatigue.

So why wouldn't a person report this torture? Typically conversations with Human Resources professionals have left the bullied person hopeless. Human Resources staff are powerless or politically inclined to maintain the status quo. Even worse, if a human resources professional intervenes, the bullying may become more intense. In some workplaces, speaking up against a co-worker or bully boss only make things worse, so it continues to go on unreported.

A 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute survey shows, 53 percent of employers did nothing when an employee reported a workplace bullying incident. In 30 percent of cases, the person who complained got fired. If the person did not get fired, they were labeled a complainer, trouble-maker and socially ostracized. Additionally, the bullied employee's performance was more closely scrutinized making being productive virtually impossible.

All leaders know that every work environment has a dominant culture and expected performance norms. While leaders are not required to provide a stress free environment, bullying can cost a business greatly. The problem is that bullying affects everyone, not just the bullied person. Research has shown that turnover increases, morale decreases, and team performance may also decline when they observe bullying behavior toward a co-worker. Team members become very tight-lipped and robotic causing the work environment to lose its energy and creativity. 

Here a few tips for a person experiencing bullying and one for leaders:

1) Bullies exist because organizations allow them to. If the bully is thriving, it speaks to the organization's values. The bully may be a high performer or have great personal relationships with those in authority. If attempts to have honest conversations with human resources, senior leaders or the bully have failed--decide if it is worth it to stay. No job is worth losing your confidence and positive performance track record. 

2) Find a support system outside of your organization. While it may difficult to avoid going home complaining to family and friends, try to participate in activities that bring you joy and energy outside of work. Since exercise reduces stress, be sure to exercise everyday and get a good night's rest (at least 8 hours of sleep) to protect your physical and mental health.

3) Guard your heart. If you cannot immediately remove yourself from the situation, try to forgive the bully. When we don't forgive, we carry more of the burden than the person who has wronged us. Bullies are often insecure individuals. Make peace with yourself if you cannot make peace with the bully. Try to stay positive within the workplace and avoid making negative comments about the bully to co-workers.

4) Leaders, take it seriously. Leaders who fail to intervene after being made aware of bullying are equally responsible. As mentioned in number one above: bullies exist because organizations allow them to. Leaders need to try to avoid surface interventions, taking sides or ignoring the problem. Find was to mediate and resolve the concern even if it means mixing up teams. If the bully is a high performer you may be more inclined to let it go. Bullying negatively affects the bottom line, increases team turnover and reduces productivity of teams.

It is difficult to understand a painful situation like bullying if it is happening to you. Never stop believing there is good in the world. There is hope. There is a brighter future.  Mark Nepo says it best, "To be broken is no reason to see all things as broken." You will return to joy and energy.

I want to hear from you. Do you think workplace bullying is real or have we become a nation of whiners? Leave your comments below.