Don’t Be a Bystander, Take a Stand Against Bullying
Everyone has encountered it. The colleague everyone knows is difficult to work with, the supervisor who barks at subordinates, the person who interrupts, scoffs at a colleague, or makes snide remarks. There is a desire to sweep this type of behavior under the rug or avert your gaze when you see it. Bullying affects an estimated 60 million American workers. Despite the fact that everyone knows bullying is bad, few fully understand its wide-ranging effects and the toll it takes on a company’s employees, productivity, and its culture.
How widespread of a problem is bullying in the workplace? According to a recent survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute, an estimated 30 million American workers are current or past victims of bullying in the workplace. Another 30 million are witnesses to bullying behavior. By comparison, in 2015 there were 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries total reported by private industry employers across all industries. Manufacturing reported 425,700 nonfatal occupational injuries. Given these facts, companies are more than likely sitting on a workplace bully situation. Workplace bullying is an iceberg; companies might not fully appreciate the scope of the problem, but they must look internally and identify problem employees and take stock of their workplace policies and environment to ensure a bully-free workplace.
Repeated abusive conduct that threatens, humiliates, intimidates, interferes, or sabotages, or verbal abuse all fall under the definition of bullying. Although we have federal protections to help safeguard against discrimination and harassment, bullying behavior can lurk in the shadows. Statutory discrimination and harassment is de facto bullying; however, “bullying” will not always meet the statutorily required levels to afford protection to its victims. States are working to fill the gap by introducing legislation to protect workers from “abusive conduct.” The current grassroots effort to block workplace bullying is the Healthy Workplace Bill, introduced at the time of this writing, in 30 state legislatures.
The human costs of bullying are considerable. Victims experience and exhibit a host of symptoms: absenteeism, decreased productivity, health issues, decreased engagement, and loss of confidence among others. Moreover, the spillover of what is happening at work can continue into other areas of the victim’s life, mainly home. The victim may begin to lash out or withdraw from those that are supposed to provide support, which will fray those relationships causing more stress and the continuation of a vicious cycle. If a company prides itself on creating a caring, ethical, and safe environment for its employees, then it holds that it must ensure the boundaries do not stop at personal protective equipment and safety protocols but include the people around them (supervisors or colleagues). Sadly, over half of bullying victims report the behavior ceased only when they lost their job. This translates to the company diverting efforts and resources towards replacing and retraining new employees. Moreover, if the victim is a star performer, potential leader, or veteran, as in most cases of workplace bullying, the departure also costs the company a top talent. Couple these facts with the actions that define bullying: threats, humiliation, intimidation, interference, and one begins to see the potential picture for disruption to the company created by this behavior. This is not about losing the weakest link but about finding a potentially large crack in the chain.
As an organization, a company with a bully can expect to experience poor employee productivity. This includes the victim (as outlined above), the bully, and the rest of the team. By its very nature, workplace bullying takes place during work hours; thus, the bully uses the company’s resources and time to carry out the abusive conduct. Additionally, workplace bullying affects not only the target but the witnesses to it as well. It colors their perception of the workplace and upsets the workplace morale. Witnesses report taking more time off, feeling less committed to the organization, and being less productive. Culturally, by allowing bullying to continue, the company creates a toxic environment that stresses the rest of the team. Employees may feel forced to choose sides (either the bully or the victim), which will hinder their performance. It also sends the implicit message that the company will allow its employees to be singled out for humiliation—not the message an ethical and caring company wants to send to its employees.
To disrupt or prevent this type of behavior from taking root in an organization, it is important for companies to note the conditions that provide a ripe environment for bullying to occur. Companies experiencing organizational change could be susceptible, especially if employees fear for the security of their jobs, or experience conflict or ambiguity in their roles. Additionally, environments where employees experience stress and uncertainty may breed bullying behaviors. In a study of the American workplace, a quarter of respondents indicated job stress left them wanting to scream or shout and ten percent feared a particular individual in their organization could become violent. Bullying may also develop if the company culture emphasizes productivity over its people, or has high workloads creating a high-stress environment. To monitor issues before they sprout, companies should take the time to take the temperature of the organization.
If the organization unwittingly allows abusive conduct to persist, it gives license to the bad actor to continue to affect the victim, the team, and the overall company. While a company cannot always control individual behavior it can instill a culture and systems that help monitor and regulate changes in the environment that may lead to abusive behaviors; thus, acting as a canary in the coal mine. Companies should employ hotlines where employees can anonymously report problematic behavior, investigate promptly, provide training to help employees’ spot signs, and create awareness around the issue. By taking a comprehensive approach and addressing the people, environment and processes companies can shed light into the shadows, prevent bullying from taking root and break the cycle.
Left unaddressed, the harm caused by bullying will affect a company all the way from the victim to the bottom line. Failure to address bullying by building an ethical culture of leadership that stamps out abusive conduct will in practical terms set the company up for future turnover, loss of productivity, an increase in workforce health issues, and litigation. Sadly, a Workplace Bullying Institute study found that employer investigations or the implementation of a new policy stopped the bullying in only an abysmal 10% of cases. It’s imperative to create and breed an ethical culture within our companies.
Given the prevalence and effects of bullying, it is imperative for companies to take ownership and leadership on this issue. While a “one-size fits all” solution will not work, taking the approach of “it’s just how s/he is or operates” and shaking our heads is wrong. Managers and employees must learn to stop excusing bullying, toxic, and abusive behaviors. They must be trained to spot problematic behaviors and given channels to report it. Furthermore, they must learn to identify conditions that can lead to bullying and provided the means for creating a transparent workplace culture that stops, disrupts, and prevents workplace bullying from bringing down the victim and the organization.
Bullying may be a harm that is hard to quantify or to gauge how deep it runs, but the costs and risks to organizations who ignore it are real and measurable: lost time, health problems, reduced productivity, depressed morale, loss of talent, and legal issues. Organizations need to show ethical and strong leadership or risk getting a reputational black eye. Moreover, by addressing the issue head-on, a company shows itself as an ethical leader that cares about the environment in which its employees work by monitoring and reacting to negatives changes in behavior accordingly. Ethical companies and its leaders solve problems and create clear and fair environments where all employees can succeed.