Workplace Bullying: Recognize and Prevent It

By Judy White  |  Posted 09-28-2010

Workplace Bullying: Recognize and Prevent It

Kevin Morrisey, the 52-year-old managing editor of the award-winning Virginia Quarterly Review, walked to a nearby area of the University of Virginia campus on July 30, 2010, and shot himself in the head. According to an ABC News report, 18 calls were made to appropriate officials to report that Morrisey was the target of workplace bullying and was seeking protection from his employer. The report alleges that the university may not have responded in a timely manner to the employee's plea for help.

Morrisey's suicide is only one of many workplace shootings that result from bullying. In fact, the growing epidemic of workplace bullying has been featured in a recent documentary entitled, Murder by Proxy, released in parts of the U.S. and Canada.

Workplace bullying expert Dr. Gary Namie, President of the Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as "repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevent work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation and humiliation." It is any behavior by employers or co-workers that subject targets to repeated, abusive conduct resulting in health-harming physical and psychological effects. Information and communications technologies such as E-mail, Instant Messaging and social networks can be part of this toxic mix of mistreatment. Indeed, while much research has been devoted to the study of cyber-bullying in middle- and high-school, there is little credible research to date on the role of cyber-bullying in the workplace.

Workplace bullying in general looks to be fairly widespread. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) commissioned Zogby International to collect data for its 2010 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Two surveys were conducted for this report: one with several items that had 4,210 survey respondents (MOE +/- 1.5 percentage points); and one single-item survey that had 2,092 respondents (MOE +/- 2.2 percentage points). Each sample was representative of all American adults in August 2010. The results are alarming:

  • 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand
  • 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women
  • Women bullies target women in 80% of cases
  • Bullying at work is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment (2007)
  • Same-gender harassment accounts for more than two thirds (68%) of bullying

In addition to the 35% of the U.S. workforce (an estimated 53.5 million Americans) who report being bullied at work, another 15% say they have witnessed it happen to someone else. Half of all workers report neither experiencing nor witnessing bullying.

The 2010 survey is a follow-up to the WBI's first national study, conducted by Zogby in 2007. A comparison of results from the two surveys shows that little has changed. In 2007:

  • 37% of U.S. workers reported being bullied; an estimated 54 million Americans.
  • Half of all Americans said they had directly experienced workplace bullying; an additional 15% reported witnessing it.
  • 72% of bullies were bosses; with 62% male and 58% women.
  • 68% of bullying was same-gender harassment.
  • 45% of targets experienced health-related problems.

In a more productive economy, 34% of bullied targets report voluntarily quitting their jobs to avoid further mistreatment according to an on-line poll conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The current economic recession lends itself to escalating harassing behavior, and workplace bullies are inflicting greater risk to both targets and their respective organizations.

Cyber-Bullying: Not Just for Schoolkids

Cyber-bullying in the workplace can range from a few incidences to a pattern of behavior over time that eventually unveils a story. Examples include:

  • Unwanted links to dating services or sexually charged material;
  • Business emails sent only targeted employees that require a reply (especially during vacations or while out on disability);
  • Threatening voice mails, E-mails or text mesages.

It is often the combination of cyber-bullying and in-person bullying that paints a complete picture of dangerous workplace behavior. Among the damaging behavior to watch out for in your bosses, co-workers and employees are:

  • Shunning
  • Verbal abuse
  • Threats or intimidation
  • Sabotage
  • Malicious rumors or gossip
  • Unreasonable work loads
  • Mobbing by other co-workers
  • Creating unsubstantiated performance deficiencies in attempt to undermine a target

Additional examples include public humiliation or embarrassment, hyper-criticism, yelling in meetings (or virtually) and degrading a co-worker or subordinate.

Workplace bullies are astute at manipulating superiors and often deliver strong business results with disregard toward organizational values.  CIO's need to pay particular attention to these key areas to watch for any signs of workplace bullying:

  • Organizational restructuring efforts
  • Performance management and talent review calibration discussions
  • Employee stress levels.

In addition, any reports of bullying made by employees -- regardless of how incidental they may appear initially - must be investigated. When IT cultures fail to encourage alternate points of view to the status-quo or open channels of communication, trouble may be waiting in the wings.

The CIO's Role in Risk Management

Workplace bullying is a silent epidemic that creates significant risk management issues for employees, enterprises and potential shareholders. It requires decisive and committed action from CIOs and senior executives. As organizations address greater transparency in response to financial reform and governmental mandates in financial reporting, it is critical for IT executives to leverage people and technology to prevent this form of behavior from occurring and taking root within their workplaces.

Employers who fail to adopt smart people policies and practices may be facing potential litigation when behavior crosses the line and employees become targets, according to reports in The Wall Street Journal and Time. Sixteen states have introduced legislation that would allow employees who have been physically, psychologically or economically abused while on the job to file charges against their employer, direct managers, and bystanders.

Leading From the Front

CIOs are well poised to add strategic value by:

  • Conducting vulnerability assessments of IT leaders and professional staff.
  •  Designing a collaborative and clear, written policy that communicates zero tolerance toward inappropriate, hostile behavior through personal and/or various technologies, including smartphones, texting, and social media.
  • Demonstrating swift action when workforce intelligence identifies risk.
  • Leveraging internal social media channels to communicate and reinforce IT's commitment to addressing concerns.
  • Re-aligning performance measures of IT leadership team.
  • Establishing an enterprise-wide reporting system, an integrity/ethics hotline, and overall process that sends alerts to a designated officer about threatening behaviors.
  • Optimizing collaboration platforms and business intelligence tools for increased transparency, communication and accountability.
  • Managing, measuring, and monitoring workplace stress.

By addressing the issue head-on, pro-active CIO's will reduce risk management issues and create an environment that fosters top performance and execution of strategic initiatives whereby employees are engaged, feel valued, and safe.

Judy White SPHR, GPHR, HCS, is president of The Infusion Group, LLC, a next-generation people management consulting and coaching firm.