Workplace Bullying: Psychological Violence?

By on December 3, 2008 in Current Events with 39 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 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 readers.

© 2016 Steve Oppermann. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Steve Oppermann.


About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

39 Replies

Comments RSS

  1. Tiger Lily says:

    I was subjected to a series of mobbing incidents over 30 years ago, and although I was able to make them back down, and I got away from them, I haven’t been able to completely get over it to this day. It was conducted by a group of 8 – 10 people and orchestrated by their supervisor. (The 8 – 10 people were inexperienced and that made them prime pawn material.) Looking back at what a fireball of ambition I used to be, I feel like the character in that song, “Losing My Religion.” Has the government paid a price for it? Of course it has; over the years my willingness to make a contribution has faded until now I’m just waiting for retirement, numbering the months on a calendar.

  2. Betsy Ross says:

    I read this article in a law magazine about “retaliation” . The article was written by an attorney who defends employees from companies and organizations

    “Company investigations of whistleblower complaints are often an minefield for the employee.  An honest investigation usually substantiates the client’s claim or at least shows that they were brought in good faith. Unfortunately, too often the investigation is a sham, rigged not only to find no corporation wrongdoing but also to smear the employee. I can tell which way the investigation is going within the first few minutes.   Sometimes, the client will agree to an interview without counsel, but that is usually as corrupt as we expected it to be.  Other interviews have been so obviously biased that, although my client and I participated, the result was clear before the report was rendered. In one investigation, the clients’ coworkers were “interviewed” and his treatment at work got worse. No one would sit near him in the cafeteria, and coworkers would move their seats if he sat near them at meetings.”

    This is what I am going through..

  3. Jjdurhamrv says:

    I am 59, enjoying the best years of my life, except for the federal work place.  I have held many management positions over my nursing career but winding down now and work as a staff nurse. Your article really outlined how I feel and what I am experiencing. I thought I was going crazy as I would begin to experience nausea and feel my pulse increase as I begin to think about going back to work.
    I am being bullied by my supervisor and a subordinate nurse. I am tired of it and do not want it to destroy me and the last 37 years I have devoted to nursing.

  4. nojustice says:

    Yea, I told nuwcdivnpt and they said i was frank paranoid and fired me. Good Luck! Denied my chain of command at that. HR fired me.

  5. VickieATL says:

    I have experienced bullying by my Supervisor and filed an EEO complaint.  Unfortunately EEO does not cover ‘bullying’.  The Judge heard all the bullying that took place but ruled against me because it did not rise to the level of “Discrimination’ among the 5 discriminator’s such as race, age, gender, ect.  The rules need to be changed.  

    • rd says:

      Sorry Vickie. EEOC is only for discrimination of a protected class…My EAP person kept advising me to file an EEOC claim…she didin’t know the difference. Also she reported to the head office that i was “feeling” bullied. She couldn’t acknowledge it either. In turn, the office accused me of being a bully when I got an attorney when they suspended me for complaining ( they called it “threatening”) .  Never go to HR or EAP. I was told by HR that I was imagining it and the bullying got worse. My bullying superviser said ” if you talk to anyone, I will find out”.  I am job hunting in this poor ecomony and seeing a therapist that has experience with workplace bullying or PTSD, as she calls it.  get out of there. fighting a crazy person and system will make you crazy.

  6. Girl Geek says:

    Funny, I’ve had about all those examples done to me by my management.

  7. Nick Quattrociocche says:

    I had been bullied by a first line supervisor, a then Marine Reserve DI and had trouble losing that role when returning to civilian service.  And of course he didn’t like (ex) sailors! (me) The first words from his mouth the first day I reported to him was “I’m not here to “F” you over, but if I want to, I can do it!”  He even downgraded my performance appraisals because I missed several weeks of work due to my having had a heart attack!  After an initial interview by the attending ER doctor, he assigned my supervisor to being 60% of the cause.  It was no Supervisor/subordinate relationship, it was always DI/Recruit attitude. He never talked to me, only growled instructions and barked his way around the office.  Yelled at women until they cried, and so on.  Complaints were never acted on, he was too well screwed into the hierarchy, mostly military retirees of higher rank and commission.  Needless to say I reitired early but returned later somewhere else as a reemployed annuitant.  He also allegedly suffered from PTSD.  Too bad they never account for the people around those like him that are so adversely affected by their (PTSD) condition.  It really takes a toll on everybody else’s Quality of Work Life, which of course can and does affect their home lives. 

  8. Arrive-1 says:

    It took about 4 years, but a bullying manager in our Federal agency was “encouraged” to find work elsewhere and she transferred, and then her Director boss lost her job altogether.  Both positions were then eliminated!  This all happened at the same time, too much to be a coincidence.  Working in a department that had the highest turnover rate of the agency, it is great to see that the nice guys can win and a lot of us are now happy to come to work each day.

  9. Uf1 says:

    YHVH is the Peoples Righteous Kill Defense [PRKD].  Especially in the American Holocaust / population control / death fix it.  Stop the poison before it spreads.  National Whistleblower USSC 99-565 & supplement

  10. Frustrated and Fearful says:

    Bullying in the workplace may be obvious, but also insidious. i found myself the target of bullying and have stood up to it repeatedly. After 2 years i discovered why a year ago I was crying so easily.  It is from a constant non-stop, unpredictable behavior that I have continued to tolerate.  It caught me so off guard. One employee took a leave until the “bully” is no longer in the workplace.  2 people have left. This person moves from target to target. He particularly targets women and the behavior has an overall pattern as you look back and analyze it over the past 2 years. This person had no supervision in the actual workplace location. This person engages in the behavior when there are no witnesses. This person is resigning n 2.5 weeks.  Staff are fearful of retaliation. The staff are mostly experienced nurses that have had lengthy careers dealing with all sorts of personalities. To say the staff feel helpless and frustrated is an understatement. The behavior is escalating.  When reports were sent up the chain of command the chief of staff told us to focus on patient care. I do not believe if this person’s wife, friend, daughter, or son worked under these circumstances it would be tolerated.  nor would the behavior I have witnessed be tolerated in the private sector.  I have requested wupervision in the workplace for this individual to prevent bullying incidents. This has not happened. I do not feel management cares and are refusing to ignore the situation. The bully is a master of manipulation and distorts reality on a regular basis. I believe there is an underlying personality disorder. There are no word to express how bad this situation is. People at work usually have security for protection from consumers, unfortunately no security is provided fpr an employee that fears another employee. 

    • Flygrls says:

      Nothing will change, I went through the same thing, I was #4.  I even had an Administrative Review Board and still found nothing wrong with the culprit.  I finally retired at age 50 to get away.   Management are criminals just like the GSA.   

    • Betsy Ross says:

      I don’t have medical training like you do, but I would agree there is a mental disorder here. Generally, bullying is the result of some fear and apathy. i would guess the front office is apathic about the situation since they would have to do some work to investigate the bully. I think you should consult an attorney about this. some attorneys will provide a letter on their letterhead that states that they represent you and that you are experiencing unfair treatment for a few hundred dollars. I hired an attorney and the bullying stopped [after 3 years of harrassment] Worth every penny i spent.

  11. Saywhatagain says:

    As a civil service employee, I was the object of passive-aggressive bullying in the workplace by my civilian department head for years.  I didn’t realize the full effect it was having on me until I had enough and transferred to another post 350 miles away.  All of a sudden, I became a valued employee.  Even after one year at my new location, I’m still adjusting to my being treated like an adult.  If anyone out there is being treated like I once was, get out as soon as you can.  It’s heaven! 

    • TractorEngineer says:

      Yes, I had a nearly identical experience.  I got so beaten down that I really thought something was terribly wrong with me and I was stressed to the point of having medical problems.  That all vanished when I came over to my new job.  I work just as hard and it can get pretty stressful at times but having management that gives a crap about you really makes a difference.  

  12. Guest says:

    How did this end up here today, if it was written in 2008? Is FedSmith psychic? I’m going through this very thing with a manager at my office. It’s discouraging to see that the responders say the only solution is for thev victim to leave. I’ve been here 25 years, and now a manager who lacks the leadership and expertise to manage or lead, will likely “win”. My colleagues, who respect my abilities, and I, will be the “losers”. But where can I go? I’m over 50.

    • Saywhatagain says:

      Last year, at age 59, I had enough and found a job for another DoD department 300 miles away.  I had been “held back” for years by an insecure department head.  I’m still a line engineer here, but that’s fine with me.  Right now I just love being treated like an adult and a valued employee.  Get out ASAP.  It’s a whole new world out there and life is too short my friend!  

    • Exfed says:

      It was so bad at my former agency that I actually became sick, physically and mentally. In my case I had to leave or I don’t think I would be here today. Management was irresponsible and in most cases if not all either didn’t know or didn’t care. People are leaving there in droves and hate the place. I will just have to wait a few years for my deferred annuity and do my best in the meantime. I had people ask me to come back but no money in the world is worth your sanity and your health. Make a plan and get out. Life is too short to put up with such horrible people. I likened it to a war zone and my therapist stated I did in fact have a type of PTSD. I don’t care what you need to do, just do it and don’t look back. It will get better..hang in there!!!

    • Guest says:

      I’m in those very shoes right now.  New manager is a bully, loves pushing people around.  We got a new employee – she came in one day to meet everyone (a couple of weeks before she was supposed to start) and the manager had her in tears talking about how she would work when he wanted, would have no set schedule and would be assigned to work all holiday, all types of garbage. Needless to say she declined the position and NO ONE in management gives a crap how this new idiot treats us.  I hope I survive until I can retire in 2015 or transfer…..

    • Zzdeog says:

      I’m currently in the same position only I am almost 60.  Gave the government the best years of my life only to have a bully graduate from school and move on to the workforce….

      • rd says:

        Don’t go to HR and EAP. I too am almost 60 and have been the target of a supervisor bully for the past two years. I went to HR and it got worse. HR said I was imagining it. the superviosr then told me ” if you talk to any one, I will find out”. I went to EAP and she gave me visualzation exercises to help me cope, but refused to acknowledge the bully. my self esteem is gone. I went to law school so am very familiar with constructive discharge methods. the front office wants me out and will fabricate anything to terminate me.  I am probably the hardest worker, dedicated employee in the department… and that is what the bully disliked the most. basically, she wanted me to stay invisible so she could shine. Go to a therapist with experience in workplace bullying and EMDR techniques.  save your own life.

        • TractorEngineer says:

          The problem with going to EAP is that they have no power. Unless your boss commits a felony against you–and you can prove it–they can’t even report anything. And if you had proof, you’d go to the cops, not EAP.

          EAP is good to give you coping skills but the approach treats you like you’re the problem.

    • rd says:

      the reason the overwhelming advice is “get out” is because you can not fight the bully, especaillly if managment is protecting her or doesn’t want to deal with the problem. also, you are trying to fight against a crazy person, that makes you crazy too.  yes, the economy is bad, jobs are hard to get, but the price may be too high to stay there. the bullying will not stop. she will find another target , so please leave and let the crazy bully “win”..who cares….she is a miserble person anyway. I am over 50 too and that may be part of the problem. younger workers may not have a full understanding of the insidious effects of the situation.  also, younger workers may not have the experience and skill that the bully is threatened by. go to a therapist and get your life back.

  13. Kaye Carney says:

    Employees can request from their second level supervisor that they be immediately reassigned when a supervisor is bullying. The current supervisor has no say in the matter and the next level manager has an option to resolve your issue immediately.

    • been there done that.. says:

      I sure wish it was that easy–my first, second and third level were bullying me everyday!  Then it went to their supervisor and she just laughed at me.  They eventually fired me after 25 years of loyal service–all I can tell anyone is keep all notes and make sure you protect yourself…always!!! 

    • Fed worker says:

      Wish it worked that way at NRC.  The first line bullying supervisor is backed up by her supervisor who is backed up by her supervisor.   

    • Exfed says:

      Not where I worked. They dare you to do anything and humiliate, belittle, and intimidate you in front of “their” friends. Your info is completely untrue at least where you work.

    • Girl Geek says:

      Tried that many times, nothing was done.

  14. Rogersmaryc says:

    In my ADR practice, I have seen many instances of bullying against both men and women. It is very difficult to prove harassement under the law but never the less the bullying is real. I don’t think reporting to management does any good because in government the HR Office is management and represents managements rights. Employee can go to the their union if they have one or file an EEO complaint. Either of these two avenues will force management to address the problem. Ultimately the employee will have to change positions or get a new. It is ironic that the federal government is unable to police itself but instead chooses to ignore the problem.

  15. Patricia Cornell says:

    I was in a work place where my supervisor came into my office shouting orders at me…..a fairly secluded site, he thought he could get away with it. I asked him why he was doing this…shouting when conversation in a normal voice volume was the norm. He thought a long time and said that this was his management style…he did the same with the military who were under him….shout until they obeyed and did as he asked!

    Weird! I had earlier checked with other people in his chain of command and they forewarned me that this was his ‘style’. I told him very kindly that this would not work with me. He had to, had to speak to me in a manner that was civil and in a normal conversational volume. He finally got the message when I said that this was the only way I understood. And I would likely start copying his loud shouting at the volunteers/children who came in my office. AND that if other people happened to be in my office or passing by….well the commander of the base….he might THEN change his ways. I retired several years later when a retirement window opened up. Thanks be to God!

    Patricia in St. Louis, MO

    Sad situation. It would not have mattered to speak to HIS supervisor as he was just as mixed up.

    • Patriciaicon says:

      I retired from the above post and began working with a smaller organization doing different work……it was an unwritten rule that asking questions during a training session was challenging to the hierarchy!    I ask questions and while I loved the work and the training, the people were the issue.  Also, I was not supposed to talk to the clients I served, just work and

      All of a sudden I love my work AND where I work and the clients I love as well.  The big difference was that I now volunteer at the same nursing facility who send me to people’s homes to work to keep them in their homes and not have to go to a nursing facility.  The clients I visit in their homes are all over 90 years old and super cooperative. At the facility, I see the positive effects that quality socializing activities can have on the people, the clients……makes all the difference in the world. 

       In this situation, fine tuning where I work was the big issue.  I have a Certified Nurse Assistant state certification which makes me a highly attractive employee.  No one harasses me, no one shouts at me and people generally have a sense of humor….those where I used to work had not sense of humor because they took themselves too seriously. 

      One recent person in this blog was right……if you possibly can, find another job or get another line of work….take a reduced salary if necessary.  Stress is a killer to the system…mental and physical…it is almost all of our waking hours.  If we cannot glorify God…..try and find an alternative job….  I ws fortunate to have people to talk with.   I live in another state of the USA and it is better for me in many ways.  I think since I am around people who treat people kindly, I am a better acting person myself.  Patricia in St. Louis, MO

  16. Carrie H. says:

    We had an employee complain of bullying by out union steward, but he was afraid of what she would do to him so would not file a formal complaint. HRO specialists said management could not intervene since she was a shop steward and any actions taken by management would be considered reprisal. Apparently supervisors are responsible for maintaining a positive work environment free of fear unless there is a union representative involved.

  17. Jazzlet says:

    Report bullying to your supervisor, huh. The supervisor is the psychological bullyier.
    This is a fine line. Sending fine line emails, but when one response to the emails, he perfers to call one in and spank you verbally when it is convienent as to make you aware of his authority and insinuate your wrong understanding of the email. Mind games are rather dangerous.

  18. Bullied at Work says:

    Interesting Post. I like to read this article. According to experts Workplace bullying is much much over anyone being bossy. Neither is it the odd enraged outburst. Workplace bullying is persistent criticism and condemnation that leaves the person being bullied feeling belittled, inadequate and lacking in self-esteem.

  19. Fredsmith says:

    Once your bully moves up the ranks its hard to address. We have a third line supervisor at DHS (WC) who just recently been promoted, so the workplace “punk” as he is referred, is just going up the ladder.

    • Exfed says:

      Read the civil rights articles on DHS. Worse of the worst……… I don’t think they even know what EEO is or care. Worst agency I ever experienced in my life but great for all the “punks’ you refer to.

  20. guest says:

    It is illustrative that 3/4 of the bullying is by supervisors and/or higher ranking individuals. Unfortunately this begs the question as to the value of suggesting that supervisors should write up policy.

    My wife was a federal librarian of the year and successfully completed a prestigious National Defense University program but is belittled and otherwise treated in a very demeaning manner by her supervisor. Her way out of this dire situation would be to retire, but then this creep would be the winner.

    The only solution to this situation is for the creep to leave or retire or for my wife to get a position with another organization. Regarding the later possibility, at age 57 the cards are stacked against her.