Employer Apathy and Lack of Laws Barely Give Bullied Workers a Fighting Chance


Workplace bullying has America's corporate trenches resembling tryouts for TV's "Survivor" or "Weakest Link."

Rampant corporate nastiness, according to HR Magazine, is one of the least documented and most tolerated problems in American companies.

About one in six U.S. workers has been a target of repeated hostile actions by a boss, co-worker or subordinate within the last year, according to a recent Wayne State University study.

Yet despite bullying's pervasiveness, few companies have effectively dealt with the problem because in most cases, legal experts said, bullying (including badgering, slander, sabotage, ostracism and withholding resources) isn't illegal.

"The picture is bleaker than I assumed it was going into it," said Nick Morgan, editor of the Harvard Management Communication Letter, who recently investigated the subject.

Under federal law, workplace harassment is prohibited only if it involves discriminatory treatment against an individual on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age (40 or older) or disability. California law also protects workers against abuse based on sexual orientation.

Abusive behavior against workers not in these protected classes may "fall between the cracks," said Joseph Z. Fleming, an attorney at Ford & Harrison in Miami.

In a survey last year of 1,335 workers who reported being subjected to disruptive mistreatment, 82% said they left their jobs (44% involuntarily; 38% voluntarily) as a result, according to Gary Namie, president of Campaign Against Workplace Bullying. In only 7% of cases were the instigators punished.

Workplace bullying is receiving far more attention outside the United States, particularly in Europe and Australia. Sweden outlawed workplace bullying in 1993, requiring employers to have anti-harassment policies. Last month, the French Parliament passed a bill making bullying and harassment punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of $13,000.

Although studies show that bullying tends to reduce productivity in the long run, some American corporate cultures encourage or tolerate ruthlessness if it appears to boost output.

But a 1998 University of North Carolina study showed that, in response to hostile treatment, 24% of workers decreased the quality and quantity of their work, 28% lost work time avoiding the bully, and 52% lost time worrying about the unresolved situation. Those who try to weather on-the-job mistreatment report stress-related symptoms like anxiety, depression, exhaustion and sleeplessness. They take 50% more sick days and incur 26% more chronic illnesses than their co-workers.

Why do bullies do it? Psychologists say there are manifold motivations. "Serial bullies," as some experts call them, struggling with lifelong feelings of inadequacy, attempt to enhance their status by demeaning and sabotaging others, said Alan Hilfer, psychologist and director of training at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. These individuals often are unable or unwilling to stop their abusive behaviors.

"Power bullies" get their kicks from wielding illegitimate (non-job-related) power over co-workers. They too have difficulty changing.

"They believe they can't command respect, so they must demand respect," said Jordon Levin, coordinator of Career Assessment and Guidance Activities at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.

One "power bully" division president of a Fortune 500 firm gained a reputation for dividing her staff into two groups: "liked" and "disliked," said New York-based organizational development expert Karlin Sloan, who consulted with the firm. Those disliked found themselves excluded from meetings and given impossible assignments. Many eventually were fired by the executive.

"She gave people the message, 'If I don't like you, you're gone,' " Sloan said.

"Overload bullies" are stressed and anxious because of unmanageable work demands and become tormentors of their subordinates.

"Unwitting bullies" have been rapidly promoted to positions of authority without adequate training in management and interpersonal skills. This group tends to be the most willing and able to change, said Susan Wilson, president of Executive Strategies in Newton, Iowa.

Bullies target individuals whom they regard as weaker or unable to fight back, Levin said. Sometimes they enlist others in their activities.

Unchecked workplace bullying can devolve a department into "Lord of the Flies." Co-workers, fearing retribution from the bully, may distance themselves from the target. Others may join the vendetta. In Europe, this phenomenon is called "organizational mobbing."

"If a person has established leadership by being a bully and is allowed to get away with it through the indifference of top management, there'll be a tendency for people to take sides," Levin said. "Most will align themselves with the person perceived to be the most powerful."

Levin recalled an incident at a Midwest printing firm where workers routinely ridiculed a shipping clerk for his compulsive neatness. The antagonism escalated until one day it took physical form: The man's co-workers set fire to papers that the man was sitting on.

"Client bullying" is another growing problem. Four vocations reporting high numbers of on-the-job bullying are teachers, nurses, social workers and nonprofit employees. People in these industries say the perpetrators are not only fellow staff members, but those whom they serve.

Increased production demands, heavier workloads and longer hours are contributing to the rise of on-the-job incivilities, experts say. In a Workforce.com poll of human resources professionals, 40% said employers were more hostile to employees than they were 20 years ago. Many attributed this to companies' drive to produce more.

Incidents of workplace bullying also appear to be a growing problem at companies affected by downsizing, restructuring, mergers and takeovers.

The worst thing a bullied worker can do is let the mistreatment continue, workplace experts said.

"A lot of times, unfortunately, people stay totally in the victim mode," said Karen Adey, co-founder of AVAK, a New York-based business-development firm. "I've seen some highly, highly competent people have all the doors close in their minds. They become filled with self-doubt."

If you are the target of abusive behavior, realize you have options. If you're dealing with an "overload bully" or "unwitting bully," request a confidential meeting with that person. Describe how the individual's behavior is affecting you, ask for a change and give positive feedback if the person improves, said Janelle Brittain, president of Dynamic Performance Institute in Chicago.

With a "serial bully" or "power bully," carefully document each incident. The bully may be able to explain away an isolated incident but will be hard-pressed to defend a persistent pattern of abuse.

Get corroboration from co-workers and witnesses. Decide whether you might benefit from making a formal grievance to your employer's human resources department or upper management. But be aware that you may not receive the support you desire.

According to Namie's survey of people bullied on the job, human resources personnel took negative action against the reporting employee 42% of the time, and did nothing almost as often.

In extreme cases, you can consider filing a personal injury lawsuit against the bully and the employer. If you're in a protected class, you may be able to file a discrimination or harassment claim.

Most important, explore ways to relieve your stress and discuss your concerns with others. Don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed with feelings of powerlessness and self-doubt, said Vivian Golub, president of Ariel Consulting in San Jose. Build a support network outside the office. Seek counseling if necessary and remember that you can seek a healthier place to work.

If you're an employer, consider instituting a strict policy against harassment. Workplace bullying is expensive. Fed-up top performers may leave for saner pastures. Workers compensation claims, disability benefits and litigation costs can mount. Negative publicity about intolerable work conditions can damage your company's reputation.

"An employer is smart to let it be known that the behavior will not be tolerated, that if it occurs it must be reported and will be investigated," said Art Silbergeld, an attorney at Proskauer Rose in Los Angeles.

Keep vigilant for signs of workplace bullying: a department's high turnover or an unexplained decline in productivity and morale. Conduct confidential employee-satisfaction surveys. Offer an employee hotline for grievances.

Provide training for employees exhibiting bullying behaviors in interpersonal communications and stress and anger management. In serious cases, consider referring the employee for psychological counseling.

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