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.