Workplace Bullying 'Epidemic' Worse Than Sexual Harassment

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Workplace bullying could cause more harm to employees than sexual harassment, researchers say. Belittling comments, exclusion from outings and criticism of work may seem relatively benign and get brushed off by business higher-ups as "kid's stuff." But the consequences to employees and even the bottom line are far from child's play. "Organizations don't realize that just rude behaviors, ongoing discourteous types of behaviors, have such negative effects on employees," said Sandy Hershcovis, assistant professor of business at the University of Manitoba, who is presenting research here today at the Seventh International Conference on Work, Stress and Health. The meeting was co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. "Unless you're in the situation you just don't understand," Hershcovis told LiveScience. "A lot of people say, 'Oh it's just a personality conflict, they don't really mean it.' But when you're in the situation - and many of us have been - it's pretty horrible." Bully prevalence The Workplace Bullying Institute found in a nationally representative poll last year that 37 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 54 million employees, have been bullied now or some time during their work life. "Anything that affects 37 percent of the public is an epidemic. But it's a silent epidemic," said Gary Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash. Evidence from several research fields, including law, communications, business management and psychology, are revealing the hardships that targets of bullying face, and they ain't pretty. "Targets of severe workplace bullying are suffering from physical and psychological conditions that would just drive even the strongest of us into the ground," said David Yamada, of Suffolk University Law School in Boston. Yamada chaired a presentation session here on workplace bullying. Bully consequences Hershcovis and Julian Barling of Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, reviewed 110 studies conducted over 21 years and involving the consequences of workplace aggression and sexual harassment. The research duo focused on 12 consequences, including: job satisfaction, co-worker and supervisor satisfaction, job stress, intent to quit, psychological and physical well-being, anger and anxiety levels, withdrawal from work and level of commitment. Bullying is just one form of so-called workplace aggression, which the researchers divided into categories:

  • Incivility: rudeness and discourteous verbal and non-verbal behaviors.
  • Bullying: persistently criticizing employees' work; yelling; repeatedly reminding employees of mistakes; spreading gossip or lies; ignoring or excluding workers; and insulting employees' habits, attitudes or private life.
  • Interpersonal conflict: behaviors of hostility, verbal aggression and angry exchanges.

Compared with sexually harassed workers, employees on the receiving end of raging-boss behaviors and other forms of workplace aggression reported lower overall well-being, less job satisfaction and less satisfaction with their bosses; they were also more likely to quit their jobs. Specifically the bullied employees reported more job stress, less job commitment and higher levels of anger and anxiety than did sexually harassed employees. The upshot The review results by Hershcovis and Barling suggest that bullies can wreak more havoc on a company than can sexual harassment. "I want to make sure that's not misinterpreted to mean that sexual harassment didn't also have negative outcomes; it did," Hershcovis said. "It's just that bullying was worse." Some explanations for the findings include the fact that sexual harassment is illegal. "There is a legal outlet to victims of sexual harassment," Hershcovis said. "Organizations have policies in place to prevent and deal with it. That ability to voice may give employees who experience sexual harassment some kind of hope." In addition, since sexual aggression is illegal, the victims may be more likely to blame the perpetrator and not themselves, as can happen with workplace bullying, Hershcovis said. Bully ban? Beating up the bully may succeed on playgrounds, but inside the business world success is not so clear-cut. For one, often the bully is the boss or other manager, and so fighting back could cost a job. While some countries, such as Sweden, and places like Quebec and Saskatchewan have implemented some form of anti-bullying workplace legislation, researchers here agree the United States has done little in the form of anti-bullying laws. Corporations in the United States also lack policies for preventing or dealing with workplace aggression. "Employers ignore bullying because they can. Its legality is what gives them the license to ignore it," Namie said during his presentation at the conference. Following in the footsteps of sexual harassment, however, bullying could gain enough awareness for legal action. "Where we are now with workplace bullying is where we were with sexual harassment maybe 15 years ago," said Suzy Fox of Loyola University in Chicago, "before we had key court cases, before we had the major Anita Hill blow-up." (In 1991, Hill, a law professor at the time, came forward with accusations that Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.) And like sexual harassment, workplace bullying needs a clear definition, Fox noted. "Bullying is often more subtle, and may include behaviors that do not appear obvious to others," Hershcovis said. "For instance, how does an employee report to their boss that they have been excluded from lunch? Or that they are being ignored by a coworker? The insidious nature of these behaviors makes them difficult to deal with and sanction."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.