Everyone’s talking about bullying these days – on the playground, in cyberspace – and, yes, even in the workplace. Bullying among adults? Is the term just being overused, or does bullying in the workplace really exist?

The answer is, unfortunately, yes. According to one survey, as many as 40% or more of workers have experienced bullying during the past year. Other polls found that at least 34% of women have been bullied in the workplace and that 13% of American workers experience psychological aggression on at least a weekly basis.

The Nature of Workplace Bullying

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done, or
  • Verbal abuse.”

Workplace bullying is a series of repeated actions, designed to humiliate, undermine, or intimidate the targeted employee.  Examples of bullying behaviors include: giving constant unwarranted criticism, creating social isolation, excessively monitoring, giving unrealistic deadlines, or cursing or verbally humiliating an employee.

Workplace bullying usually involves a misuse or abuse of power, and most bullying is done by supervisors or managers — although work peers may “go along to get along” when a colleague is being singled out for abuse. An estimated 73% of bullies are executives, managers, or supervisors of the bullying victim. The majority are male and typically have Type A personalities, being highly competitive and driven. Workplace bullies crave power and control and become impatient and frustrated easily.

And what about the bullies’ targets? Victims of workplace bullying are often singled out because they are seen as potential threats. Unlike playground victims, the targets of office bullies aren’t the less confident or newer employees. They tend to be competent, experienced, and popular. Ironically, these qualities make them an unintended threat to insecure bosses. Accomplished, veteran employees are not easily controlled and intimidated, so bullies often escalate their negative behaviors to achieve control.

Workplace targets are likely to be non-confrontational by nature and oriented toward a desire to help and nurture others. Unfortunately, these qualities can be misperceived by as weakness or submissiveness by bullies.

The Effects of Bullying

Workplace bullying can have profound effects on the employee in many areas:

  • Physical – The stress of chronic bullying can create significant health problems. One study found that employees who had inconsiderate managers were up to 60% more likely to suffer heart attacks or other cardiac problems.
  •  Emotional – Victims of bullying can develop problems such as chronic anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Several studies have found that bullying can be extremely detrimental to one’s mental health.
  •  Social – Victims are often ostracized at work, experiencing abandonment or rejection by colleagues.  In one study, only 37% of co-workers were identified as providing any type of support to victims.
  •  Economic – Bullying victims often lose their jobs or are forced to resign or transfer. An estimated 40% of victims quit their employment to escape the continued threats to their wellbeing.

Bullying also creates a toxic environment for the entire workplace.  Hidden organizational costs of bullying include increased staff turnover, absenteeism, and workers’ compensation claims; decreased productivity and morale, and associated legal costs.

Dealing with Workplace Bullies

Given the huge impact of bullying on individuals and organizations, it may be surprising to learn that at least 40% of victims never report bullying to their employers. Of those who do, most feel their complaints are ignored. An estimated 81% of employers either do nothing to address bullying or actively resist taking action when requested. Such findings may be less surprising when one remembers that the majority of perpetrators work in positions of organizational authority.

So what is an employee to do when he or she is being bullied at work? Experts haven’t reached a clear consensus on the most effective way to cope with workplace bullying. In reality, most victims either continue to endure the problem or leave the organization, voluntarily or involuntarily.

But being proactive can be potentially beneficial. A few suggestions if you are dealing with workplace bullying:

  • Acknowledge the situation. Recognize when you are being bullied and realize that you aren’t the source of the problem – it’s about control, not performance.
  •  Keep a paper trail. Document the perpetrator’s behavior in detail each time bullying occurs, and keep copies of relevant documents; e.g., threatening memos by a supervisor, time sheets, etc. Such documentation may help support your claims, but it may also help you regain some sense of control in your work environment.
  •  Get the facts. Find out your company’s policy on workplace bullying or its codes of conduct.  Consider checking with your organization’s employee assistance program or even consulting with an attorney to determine your rights. If dealing with your HR department, keep in mind that it is part of management and works on behalf of the organization rather than the individual employee.
  •  Report the problem.  Once you have done your homework, be prepared to report your concerns. If you decide to talk first with the aggressor, try to have a witness with you, or put your concerns in writing. Follow any complaint policies your company provides.
  •  Hedge your bets. If the bullying does not stop or the organization doesn’t respond to your concerns, it may be time to look elsewhere. Don’t quit prematurely, but consider checking other employment options. Establish your own tolerance level, but remember that no job is worth putting your safety or health at risk.

A bit of good news: more and more organizations are recognizing the need to establish zero-tolerance policies on workplace bullying, and at least 20 states are considering legislation that would make workplace bullying illegal, much like such practices as discrimination or sexual harassment. For today’s employees, suffering in silence is no longer the answer.

An estimated one third of all children are bullied at some time, and with the advent of online or cyber-bullying, that percentage will only rise. Parents can take action to both help prevent bullying and help children cope with abusive behavior when it does occur.

Follow these ten tips to make a difference in your child’s life:

(1) Take bullying seriously. Bullying is more than harmless teasing.  It is the intentional tormenting of another through verbal, physical, or psychological means. It can have long-reaching effects on a child, including damaged self-esteem and a reduced sense of safety.  Severe cases of bullying have occasionally been associated with suicide, school shootings, and other violent responses.

(2) Know the warning signs. Kids are often reluctant to let their parents know when there are being bullied.  Be a vigilant parent and watch for such signs of trouble as increased anxiety or moodiness, changes in eating or sleeping habits, unexplained loss of possessions or money, avoidance of certain social situations, or poor performance in school.

(3) Create anti-victimization/ anti-bullying habits in your child. To some extent, you may be able to “bully-proof” your child by teaching habits that make someone less likely to be the target of abusive behavior.  Some of these include:

  •  Treat friends and classmates with respect; e.g., take turns in games and engage in fair play.
  • Avoid pushing, hitting, or teasing other children.
  • If someone bullies you, immediately tell him or her to stop, then walk away and tell someone.
  • Avoid known bullies.

(4) Teach your child how to respond to a bullying episode. If your child is being bullied, these pointers may help diffuse the situation:

  • Use a buddy system. Hang out with a friend when you are on the bus, in hallways, or going to your locker – anywhere you might run into the bully.
  • Don’t show negative feelings.  Hold back anger or hurt feelings in front of the bully.  Count to 10 or take deep breaths; learn to show a “poker” face.
  • If confronted, firmly say, “Stop,” then walk away and ignore the bully; e.g., pretend to text someone on your phone.
  • Tell an adult you trust.  Seek out a teacher, principal, or other adult, and let your parents know what is happening.
  • Talk about your feelings.  Confide in someone, such as a friend, counselor, or sibling.  Express your feelings, and listen to any helpful advice.

(5) Create an atmosphere of respect. Children learn how to respect themselves and others first by what happens in their own homes. Make sure you model respectful but assertive behavior with others, whether family members or other people with whom you and your children come in contact; e.g., sales clerks, neighbors or other drivers. Don’t lose your cool when conflicts occur, and don’t quietly accept aggressive behavior from others. At home, teach siblings to play fairly with each other.

(6) Listen to and talk with your child every day. Regular, positive communication creates a home atmosphere that makes children more likely to share when they have a problem.  Find time each day to talk with your children about what is going on in their lives.

(7) Help your child open up.  Children are often hesitant to share that they have been bullied, due to embarrassment or fear of the parent’s reaction. If you suspect your child has been victimized, broach the subject by talking about an experience you or another family member may have had.  Or use movies or TV shows that depict bullying as a way to begin the conversation.  Ask, “Has something like this ever happened to you?” Get problems out in the open so they can be dealt with.

(8) Provide comfort and support. If your child reports a bullying incident, keep calm, listen, and offer support and reassurance.  Understand that your child may feel ashamed or embarrassed that this has happened, concerned that you will be disappointed in them, or afraid that you will over-react. Instead, praise your child for confiding in you. Provide reassurance that you will figure out what to do together.

(9) Enlist other adults. If bullying occurs within the school environment; e.g., in classes, on the school bus, or at a sporting event, let school personnel know what has happened. Someone in authority can monitor the situation and take steps to prevent further incidents. In severe cases, you may need to contact legal authorities.  Many states and communities have anti-bullying laws.  Don’t be afraid to invoke them if bullying is persistent or severe.

10. Consider professional assistance. If your child appears frequently depressed or anxious and faced severe bullying, consider professional help. Children may internalize what has happened to them and believe that it’s their fault or that they are not worthy of positive treatment. While parental support can go a long way, some children may benefit from mental health intervention.

By following these tips, parents can better equip their children to handle bullying more effectively and build positive peer relationships.

For many young people today, a huge threat to their safety and wellbeing is hidden in their laptops and cell phones.  Parents are often oblivious to this menace or how they can help.  What is this hidden threat?  It’s the 21st century social media phenomenon of cyber bullying.

The Nature of Cyber Bullying

Cyber bullying is a form of harassment that takes place through electronic technology – in particular, through social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, as well as emails and texts.  From posting of embarrassing photos online to spreading rumors on social media sites, cyber bullies seek to humiliate their victims.  Often anonymous, cyber bullying can be more vicious than traditional schoolyard bullying and more difficult to control.  Online distribution creates a wider audience, and attacks can be made 24 hours per day.

A 2011 Pew survey found that only 7% of parents worry about their child being cyber bullied, although approximately one third of teenagers have been victimized at some time.  A Consumer Reports report estimated that one million young people were harassed on the most popular social media site, Facebook, in the past year.

Effects of Social Media Bullying

Young people who are bullied online are more likely to:

  • Skip or drop out of school
  • Have failing grades
  • Use alcohol and other drugs
  • Suffer poor self-esteem
  • Have increased health problems
  • Engage in risky behaviors

In some cases risky behavior can include suicide attempts.  In one 2011 Associated Press/MTV poll, cyber bullied teens reported more thoughts of suicide than their peers.  Media reports have highlighted recent cases in which teens committed suicide after online harassment.

Warning Signs

Warning signs for cyber bullying are similar to those for traditional bullying.  Victimized children and teens may exhibit such symptoms as:

  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Anxiety about school
  • Drops in grades and school performance
  • Changes in mood; e.g., frequent sadness or irritability
  • Obsessive checking of email, texts, and internet

How Parents Can Help

You can play a major role in helping to prevent or end your own children’s cyber bullying.  Start by teaching self-respect and modeling positive relationships, empathy, and impulse control.  The better adjusted your child, the more resilient he or she can be if confronted by bullying.

In this social media age, it’s critical for parents to be aware of online hazards and to teach children how to avoid them.  Have a discussion with your child about responsible online behavior and practice online safety.  Teach your child to block or delete disrespectful friends from social media sites.  Encourage use of the most restrictive online privacy settings.  Speak frankly about the dangers of online bullying.  Teach boundaries by setting limits on daily computer and cell phone usage.  Place computers in common areas only.

Don’t hesitate to exert your parental prerogative and monitor social media and other online usage.  Tell your child or teen that online communications are subject to monitoring.  Periodically check cell phones, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc., to monitor the content of messages and posts.  Discuss any concerns you have as they occur.

Most importantly, be available.  Remind your teen that you’re always willing to listen, then make yourself accessible when you are asked, “Can we talk?” Encourage reporting of concerns to any trusted adult if you are not available.

If you believe that your child has been bullied and is having difficulty coping, don’t be afraid to seek professional help.  A counselor can provide valuable support and teach better coping skills.

In the anti-bullying movement, young people are taught the mantra: “stand up; don’t stand by” to promote reporting of peer bullying.  Likewise, responsible parents should stand up for their children’s welfare and not just stand by, through discomfort or ignorance.  It’s never too late to have that first conversation with your child about responsible online behavior.