Workplace Cruelty: Bullying is Not Just for Kids

May 9, 2012

I’ve been doing a lot of talking about bullies.  Increasingly, employers are asking me to speak with their employees and managers about bullying in the workplace, and the response I have been getting is remarkable.  After every session, whether in a blue-collar setting or a tony professional firm, people approach me and tell me their stories.  And the stories floor me.

Yesterday, a tearful employee asked me what she could do.  Her husband had left an employer after being bullied so badly that he attempted suicide, and now can’t find a job and is heavily medicated and profoundly depressed.  Just days before, a burly man told me haltingly that he has been bullied by colleagues for years, and that he blames himself for being too weak to quit.  Still another employee asked me if throwing a phone at someone was bullying, because a colleague would do this when stressed.

So I have had bullying on my mind.  Bullying is being so persistently mean to someone that it causes them to want to quit, or perhaps they become so overwhelmed by the treatment that they fall apart and get fired.  It is real and it is horrible.  It’s victims often suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—the psychological condition most of us associate with cataclysmic violence, rape, genocide or the witnessing of atrocities.  Ironically, it is not unlawful.  While harassing someone for being of a particular race, religion, color, national origin or gender, amongst other categories, is unlawful under  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, there is no law that specifically ensures that we can go to work, do our job, and be free from brutal, denigrating, humiliating or demeaning treatment from others.  In fact, a lot of bullying is done in the name of “managing performance” or “holding people accountable,” although when you look at the specifics, it is really intended to break someone down so they will quit.

One workplace bully crumpled up a subordinates work and threw it at her, then made her crawl on the floor to pick it up.  Another mocked a colleague in an important meeting by mimicking his words in a high falsetto while everyone laughed at him.  A third screamed daily at an employee for any minor error, reminding the employee that he was lucky that someone so stupid wasn’t fired on the spot.  Imagine experiencing these things in your workplace.  Imagine that others knew it was going on and failed to even say they were sorry it was happening to you.

It is time to take bullying seriously.  The word evokes a childhood problem, but the problem and its impact are anything but childish.  Constant criticism, mocking, catching every micro-error, ostracizing someone or being abusive to someone who cannot escape it without losing their livelihood is psychological violence.  Held hostage by their own economic survival, bullying victims are forced to return day after day to the hands of their abusers with little recourse.  In no time at all, the organization may see them as “the problem,” as their work and psychological well-being suffer.

Companies can and should expand their policies to prohibit harassment for any reason or no reason.  Employees should be encourage to stand up to inappropriately harsh or damaging treatment, and there should be education promoting feedback and supervision that nips bullying behavior in the bud.  Bullying employees and supervisors should be offered coaching to expand their behavioral repertoire, but only with a credible insistence that without such a change, they can no longer be employed by the organization.

In these days of uncivil public debate, political polarization and immersion in worlds where “flaming” someone you disagree with goes unchallenged, the workplace needs to establish clear expectations for professional and businesslike conduct; it is good for business, and it is good for people.

The folks at the Workplace Bullying Institute are trying to change the law from state to state.  It’s a good movement, but I’m not interested in waiting for the laws to change.  It is in every employers profound self interest to simply insist that no one be brutalized in their place of employment; bullies interfere with productivity and morale.  They wreck your employment brand and they wreak havoc with things like transparency, innovation and risk taking.  

For more information, see my article on workplace bullyingBullying Article

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