Rampant Bullying Found Across Workplaces

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VP of Research at VitalSmarts
5 min read
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In a recent study that Joseph Grenny and I conducted for our organization, VitalSmarts, 96 percent of survey respondents said they have experienced bullying at work. It's not the kind of bullying one might expect, though.

For example, when researchers have studied bullying among children, they have found two different kinds: physical and emotional bullying. Boys tend to engage in physical bullying: threats, intimidation, hitting, shoving and tripping. Girls, on the other hand, employ emotional bullying: excluding, gossiping, humiliating and withdrawing friendship. And most researchers who have studied workplace bullying focus narrowly on physical bullying.

Our research looked more broadly, however, and found that emotional bullying is more common in today’s workplace: More than two-thirds of the respondents experienced emotional bullying, while less than one-third experienced physical bullying. Here are a couple of examples from our research that were described in personal accounts:

Related: 4 Ways to Prevent Office Bullies

Emotional bullying: “This bully was a long-time secretary to one of the firm's attorneys; I was the receptionist. The bully took an immediate dislike to me and set out to sabotage me in as many ways as possible, including badmouthing me to the other administrative staff, giving me the silent treatment and refusing to cooperate when I needed her help.

"She even refused to spell me when I needed a break from the front desk to use the bathroom. When I reported her behavior, I was told that she had been with this attorney for a number of years, and he was satisfied with her work and had no inclination to fire her or even discipline her. Thus, this bullying went on unabated.”

Physical and emotional bullying: “A friend and colleague of mine reported . Afterward, some of the people in her department made life very miserable for her [and gave her] the cold shoulder, talking against her, turning new employees against her, excluding her and, even physically assaulting her (purposely slamming a cupboard door against her 78-pound frame. She lost over 30 pounds in the course of the two plus years this went on).  

"She went on medical leave for four months. She dreaded having to return -- as it was going to be in the same department. She took her life rather than go back.”

Related: The Real Cost of Workplace Conflict

This kind of bullying has more than just a personal impact. It has huge business implications as well. Twenty percent of respondents reported that dealing with workplace bullies cost them more than seven hours a week, which translates into $8,800 a year in lost productivity. The data further show that the typical bully disrupts five or more people (it's often more if the bully is a senior manager) and that bullies  get away with their bad behavior for years.

The study examined why bullying persists and found an answer: Bullies are not being held accountable. Instead, people say nothing, stay away from them, avoid working with them and vent to others. These are not effective ways to handle bullying.

Below are some specific tips for handling a workplace bully:

Related: Telltale Signs You Have a Workplace Bully

1. Reverse the thinking. Most employees suffer in silence because all they consider are the risks of speaking up. But those who speak up and hold others accountable are doing the opposite: They think first about the risks of not speaking up (then they consider the risks of speaking up). Changing the order of the risk assessment makes a person much more likely to take action.

2. Provide the facts first. Present information, as if talking to a jury. Stick to the detailed facts. Strip out any judgmental or provocative language and be specific.

3. Validate concerns. Often  bullying behavior has been triggered by a legitimate concern. Be sure to validate that need while demonstrating an unwillingness to tolerate the way it was handled.

4. Share natural consequences. Let bullies know there are consequences to their way of handling their concerns -- for employees, customers and work projects.

5. Set boundaries. Establish expectations for bullies' behavior in the future. Ask for their commitment. And let them know what what the next step will be if there is a recurrence.

When dealing with a bully, people too often fall into thinking, This is how they are and nothing I can do will change them or their actions. Years of research have proved that’s not true: Bullies can change if someone stands up to them and helps them see the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, the bullying will simply continue. Remember, silence isn’t golden. It’s permission. 

Related: Ever Had a Boss Who Seemingly Thrived on Endless Chaos?

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