Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Bully at Work

I was trying to think the other day if I know someone who has not been bullied in his or her lifetime.


Seems everyone I know -- whether they were harassed on the playground or in the workplace -- has been the target of a bully.

How each person handles that bully can vary, of course, but I don't think we can ever dismiss bullying as unimportant or a thing of the past. It's here and now, and an issue we need to keep addressing. Here's the column I did for Gannett/USAToday on the issue of bullying in the workplace and what you can do if you're a target:

Many adults shake their heads in dismay over bullying that targets children and teenagers online and in school; they even push for lawmakers and schools to do more to stop the harassment.

But many are afraid to admit another dirty little secret: Bullying is just as big a problem for the adults in the workplace.

Up to 70 percent of working adults say they've been bullied at some point in their working lives, and 53 percent to 71 percent of the bullies are in management positions, Civility Partners LLC says.

The prevalence of bully bosses is why many don't report they've been bullied, says Bert Alicea, a licensed psychologist and vice president of employee-assistance programs and work/life services at Health Advocate Inc.

"A lot of people would rather leave than stir the pot and fear retaliation," he says. "But even if they want to leave, with the bad job market there's nowhere for them to go."

The problem of workplace bullying is not new, nor is it illegal.

If bullying leads to illegal workplace acts, such as discrimination or harassment, then the courts can act. Legislation called the Healthy Workplace Bill would make bullying illegal and has been introduced in more than 20 states since 2003.

Even without the bill, Alicea says many companies are beginning to take steps to reign in workplace bullying because of its bottom-line consequences: Bullying can cost a company $83,000 a year from absenteeism and stress-related issues.

Companies often ask Alicea to provide harassment awareness or sensitivity training as a way to make supervisors and employees more aware of bullying behavior and the steps needed to protect workers. But businesses may have another incentive to offer such training.

In some court cases, companies that have provided anti-bullying training are not always held solely responsible if an employee's lawsuit alleging harassment or discrimination is successful, Alicea says. Instead, individual supervisors may be held personally liable for some financial damages awarded to an employee if a company can show the supervisor received anti-bullying training.

Still, despite more interest from companies in anti-bullying measures, Alicea says he remains concerned.

"If the bully is in a power position or someone like a rainmaker in the organization who brings in $5 million a year, then no one really wants to rattle that cage," he says.

Another worry for Alicea — a growing use of online bullying.

"Cyber-bullying is more prevalent in the workplace. People become friends with their supervisors on Facebook, for example, and they become more emotionally connected. It begins to blur the objectivity of those involved. I just think it opens up a whole can of worms," he says.

Workers also can feel bullied via other online communications, such as email, he says.

"I think there's a real need for email etiquette to be taught in workplaces today," he says. "Sending an email, written in bold with 15 exclamation points sends a message in a degrading way."

If an employee feels bullied at work, Alicea says that person should:

• Contact the company's employee assistance program. While acknowledging that some employees may fear word getting back to the bully, "you have to be able to take that risk because you're tired of feeling the way you're feeling," he says. "You need to be able to talk to an objective third party who knows how to deal with these kinds of issues."

• Tell human resources. While you don't have to provide the name of the bully, it's important to have a record so if you experience retaliation, you have proof that it took place after your complaint.

• Ask for dignity and respect. You don't have to launch into a litany of complaints but simply state you want fair treatment. This often prompts companies to bring in outside help to educate and train supervisors and employees.

Have you been the target of a bully? How did you handle it?



Elaine Barkl said...

These are great suggestions. However, what suggestions do you have for handling this same type of boss while working for a small company that doesn't have a human resource or employee resource department?

I have recently left 2 small real estate companies that have owners/bosses that intimidate/bully the employees. Besides standing up for myself and asking to be treated with respect what else can I do. Both of these companies have also had a high turnover of employees.


Anita said...

I think if you ask for respect and the situation continues the only avenue may be to find another position.
But I think the bigger issue here is how you can avoid making the same mistake of choosing companies with bully bosses.
Check out my USA Today story here: which will help you make better decision in the future.
I would also suggest visiting the Workplace Bullying Institute website ( can also help educate you about some of the issues and how to handle them.
Good luck,

Elaine Barkl said...

Thank you. Checked out both of the sites and found the Workplace Bullying Institute quite interesting. I didn't realize this was such a common problem! I also checked out the other url you supplied but didn't see the article you were referring to. I'll have to check again.


Anita said...

Glad you found some helpful info. Try this link:

Anonymous said...

I am in the military and I have been bullied for two straight years. Everything I do has been nitpicked, I've been personnaly insulted more times than I can count, and I've lived in fear for way too long. I tried to quit and move within my division three times, but was not allowed to quit. Finally my bully fired me, and conpletely humiliated me in the process. My career has been ruined and I feel like I've been to hell and back.

Recently I decided to fight and stand up for myself, but it definately hasn't been easy. I've been retaliated against and so far it's the bully's word against mine. I do have a few witnesses and all the dates written down, but I worry my witnesses may lie etc.

Anyway, we'll see how everything goes. All I know is... No one should have to go through what I've been through. :-( I'm praying everything works out. Again, at least I know the truth.