Articles on bullying at work abound these days. What has always been a schoolyard problem (especially for me, as a small and bookish child) has crossed over to the office, the factory, the job site, the restaurant, and the retail store. Wherever employees gather to work and communicate, we see the growing emergence of a set of behaviors that can create fear, anxiety, stress, and even injuries.Checkout bullying at work for more info.
The usual perception of workplace bullying is the angry and belittling boss, often a male, who throws his physical and symbolic weight around to leverage his authority over scared employees. The bigger truth is that office bullies can be company owners and partners, senior executives, line managers, supervisors, or other frontline employees. One recent study, however anecdotal, suggests that female supervisors make some of the worst office bullies, mistaking assertiveness for aggression as they make outrageous demands or mistreat their staffs.
We want all bosses to be firm, fair, and consistent and when they aren’t, who can help? Certainly the Human Resources office, legal counsel, business owners or partners, Board of Directors, senior management, or even any supervisor can and should step in when bullying impacts the morale of one or more employees and the bottom line of the company.
But workplace bullying has a shadowy component to it. What some employees see as a tough boss, others see as a bully. And since bullying can be person-specific, some people are targets while others are not. Bullying can be verbal and/or physical. So if any employee, at any level, grabs, pushes, or threatens another employee, we may have crossed over into a criminal act.
This issue raises lots of questions, and what makes it even more complex is that many senior business people don’t even like to admit that it may be occurring in their facilities. “Some of our employees are just too sensitive,” they say, or, “We don’t need a ‘champion employee’ around here, seeing injustice and mistreatment everywhere he or she looks.” Or, “If people complain about a bully, then do we have a potential for a ‘hostile work environment’ claim?” There is a fair amount of denial, rationalization, and even tacit acceptance of this issue, which is troubling, as in, “Yeah, Dave’s the office bully, but he sure can sell our products and the customers love him” or “She’s a bully for sure, but we need her project management skills when it’s crunch time.”
So is workplace bullying an overly-exaggerated response to a boss or co-worker with lousy people skills? Is it a good definition for a boss or co-worker who lacks social intelligence and punishes others? Is it a crime when it becomes threatening or hands-on? Are we under-responding in business today?
For help, I interviewed Ms. Catherine Mattice, MA, co-author of a book on workplace bullying and a nationally-recognized expert, based in San Diego. (I’ve edited her responses for length.)
What is your definition of workplace bullying? “Bullying is systematic abuse that creates an unhealthy and psychological power imbalance between the bully and his or her target, which can result in psychological damage for both the target and co-workers. The potential costs, both emotional and monetary, can really damage an organization’s bottom line. Bullying causes targets and co-workers to feel anxious, depressed, fearful, lose sleep, develop headaches and stomachaches, create self-doubt and anger, and even post-traumatic stress disorder according to a lot of recent research.”