YouTube Video Shines Spotlight on Workplace Bullying Issue

The author outlines some examples of workplace bullying and how it affects individuals and organizations.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these last few weeks, it is highly likely that you’ve heard about the incident in which four seventh-grade boys in upstate New York repeatedly and viciously insulted Karen Klein, a 68-year-old school bus monitor. One of the boys filmed the egregious conduct with a cell phone and then uploaded the video to Youtube, where it went viral; more than 7.9 people had viewed it as of June 29.

The video produced so much outrage and sympathy among viewers that Max Sidorov, a Toronto man, came up with the idea of establishing an online “vacation fund” for Ms. Klein with a nice vacation.  The original goal of the fund was $5,000, but contributions have continued to pour in and reached the astonishing total of $650,000 by July 1.

Another high-profile workplace bullying situation came to my attention on July 5 via an article titled “Report:  Missile Defense Agency chief Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly bullied staff.” The article cited a finding by the Department of Defense’s inspector general that General O’Reilly, routinely bullied his senior staff.  Multiple witnesses told the IG that that O’Reilly’s tenure was marked by yelling and screaming and that his reactions “impeded the flow of information.”  The report said that “We received consistent testimony that as a result of his management style, even senior officials stopped communicating” with General O’Reilly.

According to the article, the Inspector General “recommended the Secretary of the Army consider ‘appropriate corrective action’” with regard to O’Reilly.

I’ve written five articles for on bullying over the years, none more recently than June 2010.  But each time references one or more of my bullying articles, I still hear directly from a number of people about their experiences in being bullied on-the-job. Based on that fact, the two high-profile workplace bullying incidents noted above, and some recent bullying situations in which I have been indirectly involved, I decided it was time to take another look at the issue.

I borrowed the title of my December 8, 2008, article, “Workplace Bullying: Psychological Violence?” from Dr. Gary Namie, psychologist and co-founder with his wife, Dr. Ruth Namie, of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), who coined the term “psychological violence” to describe workplace bullying.

I quoted in that initial “Workplace Bullying…” article some guidance adapted from Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide, published by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS). I have yet to find any guidance I thought was better or more concisely laid out, so I am repeating it here.

“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”

Status of Anti-Bullying Legislation:  The Workplace Bullying Institute maintains that “The U.S. is the last of the western democracies to not have a law forbidding bullying-like conduct in the workplace.  Scandinavian nations have explicit anti-bullying laws (since 1994).  Many of the EU nations have substantially more legal employee protections, which compel employers to prevent or correct bullying.”

The WBI further notes that while there is no Federal anti-bullying law, nor has one been passed in any State, 21 States have introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) since 2003.  There were 18 current bills as of February 28.  In Massachusetts, the HWB bill has moved to a third reading in the House.

HWB Summary:  According to a group called the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates, the Healthy Workplace Bill creates a legal claim for bullying targets who can establish that they were subjected to malicious, health-harming behavior.  It also provides defenses for employers who act preventively and responsively with regard to bullying and includes provisions to discourage frivolous claims.

How prevalent is workplace bullying?

Susan M. Heathfield, Human Resources Guide for, has noted in her on-line column that 54 million Americans have experienced workplace bullying.  And the website Know Bull! states that “One of the major findings of the 2007 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey — the largest scientific survey of bullying in the US — was that “Bullying is 4 (four) times more prevalent than illegal, discriminatory harassment, which includes such things as discrimination due to race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, or age.”

Who gets bullied?

In terms of gender, the Workplace Bullying Institute has noted that women appear to be at greater risk of becoming a bullying target than men, as 57% of those who reported being targeted for abuse were women.  Men are more likely to participate in aggressive bullying behavior (60%), however, when the bully is a woman her target is more likely to be a woman as well (71%).

Who are the bullies?

The 2007 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey found that 72% of bullies were bosses and that 55% of those bullied were rank-and-file workers.

What are the costs associated with workplace bullying?

Psychologist Michael H. Harrison quoted a recent survey of 9,000 Federal employees which indicated that 42 percent of female and 15 percent of male employees reported being harassed within a two-year period, resulting in a cost of more than $180 million in lost time and productivity.

The psychological cost of workplace bullying is hard to measure.  However, based on the comments made on the website in response to my workplace bullying articles; the hundreds of e-mails which have been sent directly to me, from virtually every Federal agency and component; and recent situations in which I have spoken on multiple occasions to the alleged victims; I have concluded that being bullied can break an employee’s will and self-confidence, and can easily spill over into his/her personal life.  Bullying can also cause employees who say they have loved working in a particular organization to now want to avoid going to the office – where the perpetrator awaits – as much as possible, often taking more leave, perhaps a great deal more, and sometimes leaving the agency after giving up hope that the situation will be resolved.

And there are safety concerns.  The overwhelming majority of employees who feel they are being bullied are unlikely to strike out at their perceived tormentors – in fact, they are more likely to absorb the bullying in silence and to hurt themselves if they hurt anyone – but it is extremely difficult to predict with certainty the reaction of someone who feels he/she is backed up against the wall and has run out of options.

Closing Thoughts

Bullies can be found at any level of an organization.  William F. Badzmierowski and Jerilyn C. Dufresne, in an article titled “Dealing with Office Bullies: Developing Respect, Service, and Safety on the Job,” aver that “Bullying can only occur within a work environment that tolerates incivility.”  I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement.

Managers and supervisors need to both practice and require respect in the workplace at all times, and to make clear to employees on a regular basis that they will not tolerate bullying or any other kind of incivility.  They should make clear that employees who feel they are being bullied or have witnessed what they believe to be bullying behavior need to report it to management immediately.  Other potential remedies available to bullied employees are filing an EEO complaint – if they feel the bullying is based on illegal discrimination under Title VII – or a grievance (under the agency procedure or a negotiated one), or contacting Human Resources and/or the servicing Equal Employment Opportunity office.

I would also encourage managers and supervisors to examine their own behavior against the kinds of bullying behavior described in Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide and quoted earlier in this article, and to consider augmenting the self-assessment by soliciting feedback from trusted colleagues.  The Guide states that “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?”  It also recognizes that there is a “fine line” between strong management and bullying, noting that comments that are objective and intended to provide constructive feedback are not usually considered bullying.

I can’t imagine anyone doing their best work when they are feeling bullied, humiliated and/or afraid of losing their job.  So, it is clear to me that agency management has a vested interest – from both a moral and a business standpoint – in protecting its employees from workplace bullying.

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.