Bullying is found in more places than schoolyard

Dec. 7, 2012 at 6:07 a.m.

Earlier this fall, Victoria ISD introduced an anti-bullying campaign, the goal of which is to protect children by raising awareness among parents and school personnel and to identify positive strategies for addressing the issue. Bullying, though, is not just a schoolyard issue. University of Georgia education law professor John Dayton identifies workplace bullying as the civil rights issue for the 21st century.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines the issue as repeated health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (targets) by one or more perpetrators taking one or more of these forms: verbal abuse; threatening, humiliating, or intimidating conduct/behaviors or work interference that prevents work from getting done. Workplace bullying is multi-directional: colleague to colleague, supervisor to employee, employee to supervisor. At its most insidious, workplace bullying involves targeted actions of an organized group against an individual.

Dayton estimates that 35 percent of U.S. workers have been targeted by workplace bullies and about 9 percent are current victims. Results of workplace bullying are devastating. Associated stress takes its toll on individual health, causing reduced productivity, resignation or even violence. Experts assert that workplace bullying is akin to domestic violence in its impact. At the organizational level, workplace bullying creates a toxic culture, lowering morale and making retention of talented employees difficult. Workplace bullying reduces organizational focus by consuming the target's attention and energy and the time of those who deal with fallout.

Workplace bullies have the need to be in control. They are narcissistic with a pathological focus on their own needs and desires, excluding the needs of their target and the organization. Targets are individuals perceived as threats. Either because they will change the status quo or because comparison to their competence and capability is a threat, bullies are likely to target newer and less well-connected colleagues. A 2003 study indicated that typical targets were individuals who refuse to be subservient to bullies, were technically more skilled, well-liked, ethical and abhorred workplace politics - people needed for the organization's success.

Workplace bullies enjoy manipulating rules to control and condemn others. They exaggerate minor errors of others into major events but refuse to acknowledge their own shortcomings. When challenged, bullies claim their victim couldn't take a joke or that they were defending the organization from the victim's attempted sabotage. In her research on workplace bullying, Margaret Kohut suggested the purpose of bullying is to divert attention from the bully's inadequacies. According to Kohut, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, bully."

Their aversion to office politics leads targets to turn the other cheek. But ignoring or pacifying the bully intensifies aggression. Because dealing with bullies requires intense and time, supervisors tend to appease bullies, assuming that addressing current issues will resolve long-term problems. But appeasement is only reinforcement of the bully's behavior, ensuring repeat performances.

Resolving workplace bullying requires supervisors and employees to be proactive and assertive. For the well-being of the organization and its employees, a zero-tolerance policy must be established. Supervisors must seriously consider both parties when reports are submitted, realizing that it may be the bully who is initiating the complaint and speaking the loudest. Research on the complaint should extend beyond the immediate event. Asking questions of subordinates, peers and former supervisors identifies patterns of behavior. Checking with the human resource or legal office uncovers the history of both parties.

Most importantly, supervisors must give a name to the events experienced by target. Refusing to call bullying by its name is disrespectful to the individual whose career, health and future has been threatened.

The Workplace Bullying Institute encourages targets to take action to stop the bullying. Targets cannot change the behaviors of bullies by ignoring or appeasing. Document what is happening, recording events and witnesses. Document the impact bullying is having on the organization. How many work hours are lost as you and others respond to the bullies' demands? How many work hours have you lost worrying about the impact on your career and your relationships with colleagues?

Identify a supervisor who is willing to listen. Share information professionally and outline an acceptable resolution. Recognize that it will take time for your supervisor to gather information. Ask for a future appointment in which your supervisor can update you on what is happening. You have the right to a bully-free work environment. Dayton outlines legal options, beginning with a cease-and-desist letter and including civil lawsuits, to be pursued if management will not respond.

Because targets of workplace bullying are often people with high integrity and solid morals, they think that they should be immune to the damage that bullying causes. But just as compliments invoke positive reactions, bullying takes its toll physically and emotionally. Trying to shake it off causes more damage. Targets should seek counseling to deal with the hurt and ask a physician to monitor their health.

Bullying is a very real and damaging phenomena. Efforts by our public schools provide support for child victims. It's time we exert efforts for adult victims, too.

Jill Fox, Ph.D. is an educator with more than 30 years experience working with children and adults in public education.



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