Expert Voices

Bullying Does Not End With a High School Diploma (Op-Ed)

Bullying at work can cause serious stress. (Image credit: NotarYES, Shutterstock)

Curtis Reisinger is a clinical psychologist with over three decades of clinical experience and on staff at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. — part of the North Shore-LIJ Health System — his specialty interests involve stress reduction in occupational settings. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

People often associate bullying behavior with schools and playgrounds. The scene is one where the bully picks on the frail wimpy kid wearing nerdy glasses and non-cool clothes. Indeed, the recent media coverage of cyber-bullying, with associated tragic suicides, further cements this image.

The pain and suffering of being bullied, however, can continue well into adulthood and can even emerge among seniors. Recently, this expanded view of bullying has come to the public's attention in the sports arena, with Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito being accused of bullying teammate Jonathan Martin. [The Pain of Bullying Lasts into Adulthood ]

Unfortunately, such isolated reporting hardly reflects isolated events. It is hard to stop bullying mainly because, on its surface, it may appear to others as "assertiveness," "business savvy" or plain old competition.

However, bullying is something much darker and sinister. It is much more akin to sexual harassment and physical abuse. In fact, bullying is emotional abuse inflicting psychological pain and even persistent trauma.

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A key characteristic of bullying is that it is targeted and discriminatory. The bully picks a target(s), and over time continues to intimidate, harass, undermine and belittle the subject of the torment. Bullying is not limited to a sports arena and can be found anywhere adults co-mingle on a regular basis. This can be in the workplace, a college campus, a nursing home, military assignment or volunteer organization. And, bullying does not always stop with confrontation. Many times the bully, when confronted, will resort to non-verbal forms of bullying such as "dirty looks," "glaring," accidently bumping into the target and so on. Being on the receiving end of bullying is not the same as building resilience as one does in sports and military training. Bullying is designed to demoralize the target and decay the target's sense of self.

Although the bully may have been a victim of bullying, compassion and understanding of the bully is unlikely to stop the behavior. Firm consequences, including job termination or expulsion from an organization, may be necessary to protect targets from victimization. The causes of bullying are multiple, and in some circumstances, will never be fully understood.

If you see a peer, friend or colleague being victimized, it is a good idea to do something. Often the power of multiple, collected observations and complaints carries much greater impact than one, apparently isolated, report. Join others and bring the complaints to your supervisor, professor or whomever as a group. Make it a point to be clear that you expect change — and suggest a time to meet again to report progress, if any.

If you are the target of a bully and you feel you can leave the setting this may indeed be the best solution. Bullies need a target who they believe will not fight or who can be intimidated into submission. If you or your organization will not recognize the situation, the best solution for you may be to exit the setting. Leaving in this case is not a sign of weakness but of self-regard and good sense.

Psychologists are now teaching children that if they see bullying behavior, they should be an upstander, not a bystander. We tell them that if they see something, they should say something. It bears repeating that this is good advice for adults in the workplace, too.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.

Zucker Hillside Hospital