Workplace Bullying: What It Is and How It Can Harm Your Organization

When we think about bullying, the first image that comes to mind is usually from the schoolyard, or lately even from the context of cyberbullying. However, bullying exists in workplaces, too, and it’s not that rare, either. In 2017, 19% of employees in the U.S. were being bullied in their workplaces, and another 19% were affected as witnesses.

Workplace bullying is a wicked problem because it can be extremely difficult to spot or prove. And even when detected, it can get easily swept under the rug because of the the person or people bullying have a high status or influence in the organization. However, the impacts of bullying can be devastating not only to the employee that experiences it but also to the organization as a whole. To protect your team and your company from the negative effects and to secure a happy environment for everyone, it is imporant to understand what workplace bullying is and what consequences it may have if not addressed.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

To better understand the problem, let’s define first what workplace bullying is, and what it is not. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying at the workplace can be defined as:

“…repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or
  • Verbal abuse”

Note that in order to qualify as bullying, the behavior needs to repeat regularly and cause serious harm to the target. Therefore, such things as disagreeing with someone in a meeting, holding your team up to high performance standards (as long as they are reachable and you hold yourself up to the same standards), or not being best friends with every colleague wouldn’t qualify as workplace bullying.

However, when the behavior repeats on a regular basis and it is intended to harm one or more people, whether that means taking the credit of their work, making them look bad in the eyes of the management, or less liked among their colleagues, you may be dealing with workplace bullying.

Who Bullies and Why?

The person or people engaging in bullying may be hard to spot. They can seem highly likable and behave the best possible way in front of some people. They can come across as strong and confident, and seem to believe in their own abilities.

Sadly, the truth could be a different story. A person who feels the need to bully others can feel insecure about their abilities and unsure about how to triumph with their own accomplishments. The targets can be people who are seen as competition. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, the target is typically someone who is more skilled and better liked than the bully, ethical and honest, non-confrontational, and a go-to colleague for other team members. The insecurity of the the person bullying can make them feel like the target is taking away their spotlight. This can lead to a situation where the person bullying collects the credit for the the targeted colleague’s work and even blames them when things go wrong. If bullying continues for an extended period of time, the target may even start believing that the behavior they receive is justified and begin to lose respect for themselves and their work.

The Impacts of Workplace Bullying

Bullying can harm the health of the employee experiencing it by causing both mental and physical illnesses. These can include anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, digestive issues, and even cardiovascular problems. Bullying can also have a negative impact on their social life when the their life starts to revolve around the bullying and the unfair treatment that they receive at work. Bullying can also have a financial impact, since as much as 65% of targets lose their jobs, either involuntarily or because they decide to prioritize their health and leave the toxic situation.

In addition to the targeted employee, bullying also has severe impacts on your organization. It causes a loss in productivity when the negative impacts overwhelm the target. The targeted employee might need to take sick leave to recover from bullying or their performance may sink and they may lose their commitment to the organization (see TEDxHanzeUniversity: Bullying and Corporate Psychopaths at Work by Clive Boddy). Bullying can also sabotage your culture by creating an environment of fear. You could end up losing some of your employees who flee the toxic environment. This increased turnover costs your organization money, and it can also harm your employer brand when the word of a toxic culture spreads.

Workplace bullying can cause serious harm to the organization. It is obvious that in a happy company culture, there is no room for bullying behavior. Have you encountered bullying in the professional world? How did the situation get resolved?

unsplash-logoAnnie Spratt

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