Business of Well-being

Bullying: What are the Myths Surrounding Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace?

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can have a significant negative impact on employee well-being, corporate morale, and productivity. Bullying plays a key role in threatening workplace wellness, emotional health, and perceived safety. The effects can be as far reaching as stress-related absence, long term sickness, loss of talent, and potentially damaging legal claims.

In the U.S., a recent study on behalf of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) recorded that 35% of employees had experienced bullying. A staggering 13.7 million stated that they were currently the target of a workplace bully. In the UK, a survey of 7,000 HR professionals noted that every single one believed that bullying was "embedded in workplace culture."

There continues to be many misconceptions regarding this emotive subject. The goal of this article is to debunk some of the myths surrounding bullying and harassment.

Bullying and Harassment are the Same Thing:

This is not exactly true. Bullying and harassment are separate concepts; however, they both can have the same effect on an individual - summarized as unwelcome, unwanted, and/or unwarranted.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines "Bullying" as:

"The repeated health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees through acts of commission - or omission - manifested as: verbal abuse; behaviors - physical or non-verbal - that are threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage, interference with production; exploitation of a vulnerability - physical, social or psychological; or some combination of one or more categories."

A globally accepted definition of "Harassment" is:

"...Any physical - or verbal - conduct demonstrating hostility toward a person because of his or her age, sex, race, color, religion, national origin, disability or other 'legally protected status'. "Harassment can occur in person, in writing, by telephone (voice or text messaging), by fax, via the Internet (e-mail or instant messaging), or through any other means of communication. Harassment can be physical, verbal, or visual. You might be surprised to learn that it is estimated that bullying is four times more prevalent than harassment in the USA.

Until the Healthy Workplace Bill - or some similar legislation are adopted in every state - it is up to employers to be pro-active in tackling this threat to workplace wellness. It is acceptable to adopt one corporate policy to deal with both bullying and harassment.

The main issue is not to label the unwelcomed behavior, but to provide a robust framework to deal with complaints and to educate employees and managers. For the rest of this article, I shall call the 'perpetrator' the 'bully' but you could equally substitute this with 'harasser.'

Victims are weak:

Not true. It is more appropriate to refer to a 'victim' of bullying or harassment as the 'target'. The archetypal vision of a bullying situation in school is a big, strong bully beating up (physically or verbally) a diminutive, weak or vulnerable victim. This tends not to be the case in the workplace. Bullying can happen to anyone - from senior directors to new recruits.

Targets may have some form of vulnerability - such as a difficult family situation or financial reliance on the job - but that doesn't mean that they are weak. Targets are often popular, capable, socially adept and experts in their respective field. This can cause great difficulties for targets as when they instigate a complaint procedure; often the first reaction is: "but you are always so upbeat/cheerful/on top of things.

"Alana* was a police administrator with a staff of four. One of her subordinates, Sandie* took exception to Alana's wealthy background and used subtle put-downs at the start of her bullying campaign, progressing to sabotaging Alana's work and consistent insubordination. At first, Alana's superiors didn't believe that it was possible for the diminutive Sandie to be so destructive; but Alana lodged a formal complaint and following careful collection of evidence, she won her case.

Most bullies are male:

Again not true. Yes, the stereotypical bully is the male boss who either behaves as a sexual predator or intimidates his female (or subordinate male) target. Bullying in the workplace can be insidious, psychological, and emotional. Very rarely is any physical strength required to bully someone.

The 'Queen Bee Syndrome' is a well-known obstacle for women to succeed with a female boss. Surprisingly, "the Sisterhood" is not a positive force when it comes to career progression, and promotion and 80% of female targets are bullied their female colleagues.

Most bullies are managers:

Not always. Yes - bullying bosses are more common, but bullies can project upwards - and horizontally - as well as downwards. Managers subjected to bullying are usually particularly loathe to admit this because they perceive being the victim of bullying as a sign of weakness.

Poor management is responsible for bullying:

Yes and no. Poor management doesn't create a bully, but it can help foster a bullying environment to exist. A poor manager may bully or harass - staff members due to his own inadequacy. A UK survey by "Ban Bullying at Work" found that two-thirds of over 500 managers quizzed believed that their own behavior was a major contributing factor to a bullying problem.

The culture of an organization is also key - especially in allowing sexist or racist views to go uncensored. Sports teams are a good example of how a previously well behaved and sensitive individual can adopt the unacceptable habits of their colleagues partly due to peer pressure as inappropriate behaviors become accepted as the norm.

If you downplay a bullying situation, the problem will go away:

This is a foolish dream. Uncontrolled bullying - or harassment - will either lead to an expensive and damaging lawsuit or the loss of talent. Maria* was a senior manager for an insurance company who worked alongside two other directors at the same level. When Maria won a prestigious industry award, her female counterpart was so incensed with jealousy that she started a vitriolic campaign against her colleague - including publicly stating the desire to stab Maria.

The CEO put it down to 'menopausal women' and did nothing. Maria left to join a competitor, and within three months, the majority of staff in Maria's division left; including 50 % of the company sales team. Five years later, the organization is still trying to make up ground in the sector.

Bullies are born, not made:

This is a tricky one. Does someone start life with a bullying streak? Have all bullies been bullied themselves? The one common link that all bullies seem to display is a sense of inadequacy and failure to accept responsibility for their behavior. A boss who knows that his subordinate is wiser, more experienced, and/or more popular may use that as an excuse to harass or bully.

Individual members of peer groups are particularly susceptible to bullying due to jealousy. Events that can trigger bullying of a target include departure of a previous target, reorganization, the target being a focus of praise due to exceptional achievement, and/or sticking to a rule which the bully wants to break.

Bullies work alone:

This is not always the case. Bullying can be undertaken by groups of people who work together to isolate their target. Jack* was bullied recently by his peer group in a customer service team. He did what most people do - and voiced his opinion with his feet - leaving a well-paid job that was beginning to make him deeply unhappy. The environment was a small group of administrators all working together in an enclosed office.

As soon as Jack left, the boss took his place in the office and was immediately subjected to the same 'cold shoulder' treatment. He soon realized that Jack was not being over-sensitive and there was a culture of exclusion operating with himself (the boss) as the new target.

Bullying and harassment will get worse in this economic climate:

As workplace pressure increases, the environment is more conducive to bullying. It is estimated that 80% of those bullied leave their jobs rather than follow the complaint route. That would equate to nearly 11 million workers in the US leaving employment due to bullying this year alone.

As jobs become harder to find - rather than resign - targets are more likely to take leave of absence due to stress; or suffer in silence. This form of presenteeism (working while under par, stressed or ill) will have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing with a resultant loss of productivity and morale.

A final indisputable truth:

There has never been a more crucial time to adopt a robust, workable, and well-publicized bullying and harassment policy. Tailored training and awareness can be highly effective in minimizing the occurrence of harassment and bullying. Anti-bullying/harassment training and can protect both the individual and the organization from the effects of such behavior. *Fictional names have been applied to these real life scenarios.

About The Author

Marcia Reid is the Managing Director of Finchers Consulting, a trainer, facilitator, and communicator. She works diligently to provide health and wellbeing consultancy/management both in the UK and in the US. Marcia has an in depth knowledge of the US and UK healthcare markets, and her blog is followed by health/wellness professionals in over 70 countries. Email Marcia, or you can reach her by telephone @: +44 (0)7725562130

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