Workplace Bullying: Psychological Violence?

By • December 3, 2008 0 Comments

I have written previously on workplace violence; this time, I am going to offer a few thoughts on bullying in the workplace, which a number of experts see as a form of workplace violence. Dr. Gary Namie has described bullying as "psychological violence," and I think that is a very good description. The article will also touch on cyber-bullying, a new form of bullying that is as current as today’s headlines. (See, also, Pondering the Impact of Workplace Violence.)

You may have read the very recent – and profoundly disturbing – headline about a Missouri woman who was found guilty of misdemeanor crimes in a "MySpace" cyber-bullying case linked to a 13-year-old girl’s suicide. According to prosecutors, the woman conspired with her young daughter and a business associate to create a fictitious profile of a 16-year-old boy on MySpace to harass Megan Meier, apparently in an effort to humiliate Megan for saying mean things about her daughter.

The "boy" sent flirtatious messages to Megan, but then abruptly changed to a very harsh tone, telling her "The world would be a better place without you." After receiving that message, Megan hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet. According to prosecutors, the woman knew that Megan suffered from depression and was emotionally fragile.

A major USA Today article dated November 19, 2008, entitled "Bullying devastates lives," and chronicled the sad stories of three women who experienced constant bullying in school – one for having red hair, one for being shy, and one for being "different."

The three women, now ranging in age from 28 to 52, continue to be affected by the bullying that they suffered in school. According to Daniel Nelson, medical director of the Child Psychology Unit at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, "…there’s no question that ‘unrelenting,’ daily hostilities that maybe escalate to threats or actual aggression can be on par with torture…," or that " repeated and severe bullying can cause psychological trauma." Nelson went on to observe that "There’s no question that bullying in certain instances can be absolutely devastating."

A companion article talked about a high school girl whose epileptic seizures – of all things! – had made her a target in three different schools. She was so traumatized by the tormenting that she dropped out of school and is now pursuing independent study; the young woman "suffers so much that she could not be interviewed" for the article. Sisters Emily and Sarah Buder, appalled by the news, wrote letters to the girl and asked friends to do so as well. They hoped for 50 letters; the current total is 6,500, and counting!

I also ran across a November 7 Reuters article entitled "Bullies may get kick out of seeing others in pain." In this one, University of Chicago "researchers compared eight boys ages 16 to 18 with aggressive conduct disorder to a group of eight adolescent boys with no unusual signs of aggression." The article went on to state that, in the "aggressive teens, areas of the brain linked with feeling rewarded…became very active when they observed video clips of pain being inflicted on others. But they showed little activity in an area of the brain involved in self-regulation…as was seen in the control group."

Researcher Benjamin Lahey noted that "It is entirely possible their brains are lighting in the way they are because they experience seeing pain in others as exciting and fun and pleasurable." Lahey went on to say that "the differences between the two groups were strong and striking, but cautioned that the study was small and needs to be confirmed by a larger study."

How does all of this relate to the Federal workplace?

Bullying, whether via the latest technologies or by more traditional means, is a growing problem in American workplaces of all kinds, and I don’t see why Federal agencies would be exceptions.

In fact, I just received an e-mail from a woman who indicated that she has been bullied so severely in her current job, to include being screamed at in anger by managers and treated with no respect by some of her co-workers, that she felt compelled to tell her story to someone. I have received similar comments from other FedSmith.com readers in the past in response to articles I have written that may have touched on the subject, so I know that there are employees in a number of Federal agencies who feel they are being bullied.

I think the following guidance, adapted from Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide, published in 2001 by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS), is worth a look whether you are a Federal manager, supervisor, or non-supervisory employee.

What is Workplace Bullying?

Bullying is usually seen as acts or verbal comments that could ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate a person in the workplace. Sometimes, bullying can involve negative physical contact as well. Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behavior that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people. It has also been described as the assertion of power through aggression.

What are Examples of Bullying?

While bullying is a form of aggression, the actions can be both obvious and subtle. It is important to note that the following is not a checklist, nor does it mention all forms of bullying. This list is included as a way of showing some of the ways bullying may happen in a workplace. Also remember that bullying is usually considered to be a pattern of behavior where one or more incidents will help show that bullying is taking place.

Examples Include:

  • Spreading malicious rumors, gossip, or innuendo that is not true
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially
  • Intimidating a person
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse
  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause
  • Constantly changing work guidelines
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information
  • Making jokes that are ‘obviously offensive’ by spoken word or e-mail
  • Intruding on a person’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavorable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)
  • Under work – creating a feeling of uselessness
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly
  • Belittling a person’s opinions
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment.

It is sometimes hard to know if bullying is happening at the workplace. Many studies acknowledge that there is a "fine line" between strong management and bullying. Comments that are objective and are intended to provide constructive feedback are not usually considered bullying, but rather are intended to assist the employee with their work.

If you are not sure an action or statement could be considered bullying, you can use the "reasonable person" test. Would most people consider the action unacceptable?

How Can Bullying Affect an Individual?

People who are the targets of bullying may experience a range of effects. These reactions include:

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Feelings of frustration and/or helplessness
  • Increased sense of vulnerability
  • Loss of confidence
  • Physical symptoms such as:
    • • Inability to sleep
    • • Loss of appetite
  • Psychosomatic symptoms such as:
    • Stomach pains
    • Headaches
  • Panic or anxiety, especially about going to work
  • Family tension and stress
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Low morale and productivity

How Can Bullying Affect the Workplace?

Bullying affects the overall "health" of an organization. An "unhealthy" workplace can have many effects. In general these include:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased turnover
  • Increased stress
  • Increased costs for employee assistance programs (EAPs), recruitment, etc.
  • Increased risk for accidents / incidents
  • Decreased productivity and motivation
  • Decreased morale
  • Reduced corporate image and customer confidence
  • Poorer customer service

What Can an Employer Do?

The most important component of any workplace prevention program is management commitment. Management commitment is best communicated in a written policy. Since bullying is a form of violence in the workplace, employers may wish to write a comprehensive policy that covers a range of incidents (from bullying and harassment to physical violence).

Final Thoughts: I believe that managers and supervisors are morally responsible for ensuring that employees are not bullied in the workplace, but I also think that it makes good business sense.

For example, I can see real potential for people who feel they are being bullied relentlessly to eventually reach their limit and attempt to hurt either themselves or others. I believe that many of the students who have wreaked violence on their schools, such as Harris and Klebold at Columbine High School, or planned to do so, cited being picked on relentlessly as at least one of the motivating factors for their attacks.

While most employees who are bullied are unlikely to strike out at their perceived tormentors – in fact, they are more likely to absorb the bullying without saying anything to anyone – I can’t imagine anyone doing their best work when they are feeling bullied and humiliated and/or are fearful for their safety. Accordingly, I maintain that it is in management’s interest to maintain a respectful work environment and not to tolerate any bullying behavior.

I would advise managers and supervisors to start by examining their own behavior – soliciting feedback from trusted colleagues might be part of the process – to make sure they are not engaging in any bullying of their own, however inadvertent. I would also suggest that they let employees know that bullying, like workplace violence and threats, will not be tolerated, and tell employees who feel they are being bullied to report it to management immediately.

As always, I welcome the thoughts of FedSmith.com readers.

© 2014 Steve Oppermann. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Steve Oppermann.

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