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

When we think about bullying, the first image that comes to mind to most of us is usually from the schoolyard, or lately even from the context of cyberbullying. However, bullying is a problem in workplaces, too, and it’s not that rare either. To give you an idea, 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 bully’s high status or influence in the organization. However, the impacts of bullying can be devastating not only to the employee that the bully is targeting but also to your 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 crucial that you understand what workplace bullying is and what consequences it may have if not addressed.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

To understand the problem better, 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 don’t qualify as workplace bullying.

However, when the behavior repeats on a regular basis and it is intended to harm the target, 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 a workplace bully.

Who Bullies and Why?

A workplace bully doesn’t walk around advertising themselves as a bully. In most cases, the contrary is actually true. A bully can seem highly likable and behave the best possible way in front of you. They can also come across as a strong and confident person who believes in their own abilities.

Sadly, the truth behind the facade is usually a different story. The bully can feel insecure about their abilities and unsure about how to triumph with their own accomplishments. In addition to the lack of healthy self-confidence, bullies can be very skilled at manipulating others. They can be overly friendly with you to make you trust them and then treat their targets in a completely different way.

Due to the insecurity that the bully feels, they usually take targets who they see as a competition or a threat. 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 bully feels that the target is taking away their spotlight, and thus belittles them, takes the credit of their work, and puts the blame on them to make themselves look better.

It seems irrational that someone less competent could take the advantage of someone who usually is your ideal employee. However, the combination of the manipulative personality of the bully and the non-confrontational character of the target can lead to a situation where the bully collects the credit of the target’s work and blames the target when things go wrong. The target is unable to fight back because the bully is already controlling other people in the organization and any attempt would make the target look defensive. If bullying continues for an extended period of time, the target may even start believing that the bully’s behavior is justified and begin to lose respect for themselves and their work.

The Impacts of Workplace Bullying

Bullying at the workplace can have serious consequences to both, the targeted employee and your organization.

To the target, these consequences can be devastating. Bullying can harm the target’s health 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 target’s life starts to revolve around the bullying and the unfair treatment that they receive at work becomes the main topic even during the time that they spend with their friends and family. Bullying also has a financial impact on the target 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 and toxicity. You will most likely end up losing some of your best people, including the target and other 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 your toxic culture spreads.

Workplace bullying can cause serious harm to the targeted employee and to your organization as a whole. It is obvious that in a happy company culture, there is no room for bullies. In future posts, we will be discussing in detail how to detect bullying in your organization and what to do about it. So stay tuned and follow The Happy Works on LinkedIn or get notifications of new posts straight to your inbox when you click “follow” in the footer below!

unsplash-logoAnnie Spratt

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