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By Michele Hellebuyck

Bullying is often considered something we think about when recalling moments from our childhood. We automatically turn to the experiences of youth in middle school or high school. But as adults we also experience bullying, and despite a change in environment and age, the look and feel of the bully is the same. They are individuals that have been given, and have assumed, the power to decide if you will be rewarded as an insider or mistreated as the outsider.

In the workplace, bullying behavior can often appear to be acceptable and supported by an organization’s culture or rules. Andrew Faas, the author of The Bully’s Trap: Bulling in the Workplace” writes that, in most organizations, those in power are expected to have bullying traits: assertive, demanding, and detached. Additionally, he argues that whether these traits are used to intimidate, or control others, depends on workplace culture. Bullies grow in power in organizations where rules are unclear or optional, people are punished for speaking up, and rewards are given based on whether you are well-liked. In these work environments, one person or a set of people can behave as bullies without running into any problems. [1]

Why does workplace bullying need to be address?

Its impact on employees' emotional and physical health are too serious to ignore. Employees that experience bullying can often develop symptoms of a mental health condition, including anxiety and depression. [1] For those already experiencing a mental health condition, these conditions can become more severe. All forms of bullying (verbal, psychological, physical, and cyber) can have this effect. Employers and those working in a workplace where bullying takes place are also affected. Bullies create a toxic environment that leads to lower levels of productivity and higher turnover rates. [2] Employees witnessing bullying are at risk of experiencing higher levels of stress, fear (of being bullied), and guilt, which also negatively impacts their performance.

Can one tell the difference between bullying and good leadership skills?

Yes, but it is not always clear. To start, it is important to know that managers are supposed to:

  • Set high expectations
  • Hold their employees accountable
  • Provide feedback and direction

They are not supposed to:

  • Set unrealistic expectations or work demands
  • Target only one employee or a set of employees
  • Shame/humiliate employees in front of their co-workers

Once the signs are there, what can you do?

It can be scary to confront a bullying in the workplace. This is especially true when the bully is likely to be someone who has some say in how your performance is perceived at work. There is no one solution to the issue of workplace bullying. A stop to it requires many to act and all to become more aware, changing their behaviors and attitudes. In his book, Faas provides the following advice:

For the Organization or Company:

  • Implement policies that protect those speaking up on the issue
  • Taking quick action in addressing issues—DO NOT LOOK THE OTHER WAY!
  • Monitor workplace culture to identify factors that may be encouraging bullying

For the Bullied:

  • Bring it to the Bully’s attention
  • Keep track of all incidents
  • Seek Support and professional help

For the Bystander:

  • Become a witness—do not turn the other cheek
  • Let those bullied know that you support them
  • Register and Report (this can be done anonymously)

[1] Faas, A. (2015). Bullys trap: Bullying in the workplace. Tate Pub & Enterprises Ll

[2] Hauge, L. J., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen, S. (2010). The relative impact of workplace bullying as a social stressor at work. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9450.2010.00813.