Study: Office Bullies Create Workplace 'Warzone'

The office might be far from the playground, but it’s not off limits to bullies. From a screaming boss to snubbing colleagues, bullies can create a “war zone” in the workplace.

In a recent study, bullied employees likened their experiences to a battle, water torture, a nightmare or a noxious substance. Understanding the seriousness of workplace bullying and what it feels like to get bullied could help managers put the brakes on the behavior, shown to afflict 25 to 30 percent of employees sometime during their careers.

“Many Americans are familiar with sexual and racial harassment, but not generalized workplace bullying,” said study team member Sarah Tracy of Arizona State University. Bullying can lead to higher company costs including increased employee illness, use of sick days, and medical costs, ultimately affecting productivity, she added.

Workplace bullying can include “screaming, cursing, spreading vicious rumors, destroying the target’s property or work product, excessive criticism, and sometimes hitting, slapping, and shoving.” Subtle behaviors, such as silent treatment, disregard of requests and exclusion from meetings, count as bullying.

Bully icons

The scientists interviewed 17 women and 10 men ranging from 26 to 72 years old, who had experienced bullying. Often, people have trouble putting into words their emotions surrounding bully behavior. So the researchers analyzed the metaphors found throughout the participants’ descriptions of bullying.

More than any other metaphor, participants characterized bullying as a contest or battle, with a female religious educator saying, “I have been maimed. … I’ve been character assassinated.” Others expressed feeling “beaten, abused, ripped, broken, scared and eviscerated,” the researchers stated in the upcoming issue of the journal Management Communication Quarterly

The bullies were described as two-faced actors, narcissistic dictators and devils, leading workers to feel like vulnerable children, slaves and prisoners in these situations. As one employee explained, "I feel like I have 'kick me' tattooed on my forehead."

Bully-proof office

How can you take the bite out of a bully-fied office? “An important first step of changing workplace bullying, is helping people to understand that it's more than just kid stuff,” Tracy told LiveScience.

Early intervention can nip bullying in the bud before it escalates into an established pattern, one resulting in high company costs. The problem is that most bully victims keep their mouths shut, whispering their horrid experiences to close friends rather than higher-ups. The use of metaphors, the researchers suggested, is more subtle and more likely to seep into conversations both public and private.

The scientists will continue examining the prevalence and impact of workplace bullying. In another research project, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Management Studies, they found that out of more than 400 U.S. workers surveyed, 25 percent were bullied at work.