The office bully has an array of weapons at his disposal, ranging from the subtle silent treatment to not-so-subtle verbal ridicule, the effects of which can ripple through the workplace.
A new study finds that while nearly 30 percent of U.S. workers have endured a punishing boss or co-worker, many individuals would not label themselves as bully targets. For those who do, it’s not just the bully victim who feels the heat. Witnesses in nearby cubicles are affected and show an increase in stress and overall dissatisfaction with their jobs.
The prevalence of bullying in the American workplace tops the rates found in Scandinavian countries and is on par with those in Great Britain, the scientists found.
The study, published in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Management Studies, adds to a growing body of research into the dynamics and effects of workplace bullying, including an investigation by the same team that found that victims of bullying feel like they are fighting a battle.
The scientists, led by Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik of the University of New Mexico, conducted an online survey that included general workplace questions as well as those specific to bullying.
During the survey, the 400 U.S. workers who participated, including 266 women and 134 men, ranked how often they had experienced a list of 22 negative acts in the past six months, on a scale ranging from never to daily. Participants then read a definition of workplace bullying and were asked whether they considered themselves targets of bullies. Those who answered “no” were asked if they had witnessed bullying based on the given definition over the past six months.
While a blood-pumping harangue from a boss can send many an employee into victim mode, feeling they are being bullied, the authors stress that certain criteria must be met for behavior to be considered bullying.
The definition given to respondents stated that bullying occurs when an individual experiences at least two negative acts, weekly or more often, for six or more months, in situations where targets find it difficult to defend against and stop the abuse.
The sample included people from all age groups, and from various industries, including agriculture, art, information, real estate, and utilities. Women, individuals aged 35 to 44 and workers in white-collar industries were somewhat overrepresented, the researchers note.
Lutgen-Sandvik and her colleagues found that nearly 30 percent of the participants met criteria for being “bullied.” But less than 10 percent of those respondents labeled themselves as bully targets. One reason for the discrepancy has to do with the subtlety of abusive acts toward another employee.
“Bullying, by definition, is escalatory. This is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to prevent it, because it usually starts in really small ways,” said study team member Sarah Tracy, director of the Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University.
Another factor might be that bullying is a phenomenon just creeping into people’s vocabulary as the research and education on the topic burgeons. For instance, Tracy explained, before the term “sexual harassment” was in the American lexicon, people didn’t identify the behavior as such.
Until recently, the term “bully” has been used to describe the schoolyard tyrant, which is kid stuff. So identifying yourself as a victim of a playground act can make a person feel weak and childish.
Co-workers on the sidelines of the bully battle, as identified in the online survey, had higher stress levels and a greater dissatisfaction with their jobs compared with those who were not exposed to bullying.
“Witnesses describe seeing others psychologically terrorized as the equivalent to watching a mugging every day and being unable to stop it,” Lutgen-Sandvik told LiveScience. “They feel deep pain for their colleagues. Some get involved and try to help and are either targeted as a result or feel deep disappointment, anger, and shock that little is done to stop the abuse.”
Bust the bully
The scientists describe this scale of bullying intensity as analogous to sunburns, in which low levels of abuse, like first-degree sunburns, can cause damage over time but are typically quick to heal. At the other end of the spectrum, the most extreme cases of bullying are similar to third-degree sunburns that often leave behind deep scars and permanent damage. Targets of extreme bullying can end up with permanent psychological damage, stress disorders, increased risk of heart disease and even thoughts of suicide.
While certain personality types could be more prone to foster bullying behavior, the scientists say the structure of American workplaces could be partially to blame for breeding bullies. “There are a number of workplace cultures that encourage bullying because of high levels of competition,” Tracy said.
Re-structuring the workplace could be a hefty order, so the scientists developed tactics to guide bully victims in telling their stories to decision makers. “If they want to change their situation, and they have a half an hour in the human resources office, this is the way you have to tell your story,” Tracy explained in a telephone interview.
Based on prior research in which bully victims told their stories, Tracy and her colleagues put together tactics to bust an office bully. The tactics include telling a rational, linear story that’s chock full of vivid details.