The Danger of Disrespect, Bullying, Harassment and the Bottom Line

Erica Pinsky

"Janine" used to love her job. Focused and engaged, she had been a team player and top performer who consistently delivered impressive results. Now she wakes up every day feeling sick and dreads the thought of having to go in to the office. Work has become a nightmare. She has to endure constant criticism, public ridicule, sarcasm and fits of unpredictable rage from her current boss. One day Janine wakes up and just can’t face it. Rather than go to work, she calls in sick and heads to her doctor’s office.

Although Janine doesn’t realize it, she has been the target of workplace bullying, a growing problem now affecting almost half of all U.S. workers, according to a 2007 study conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International.1 Workplace bullying occurs four times more often than discriminatory harassment. However, like Janine, far too many businesses fail to recognize the danger of disrespect before it takes a toll on the health of their bottom line.

While both harassment and bullying are disrespectful behaviors, a critical distinction is that workplace harassment is a legal issue for employers, flowing from Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on a number of personal characteristics such as race, color, religion and sex. The legal framework has raised awareness about harassment as a type of discriminatory behavior. Racial slurs, off-color jokes, unwanted sexual attention or inappropriate touching are recognized by both employers and employees as disrespectful and problematic in the workplace.

On the other hand, workplace bullying behavior is often ingrained within a workplace or team and becomes a cultural norm. Embarrassing scenes in front of co-workers, yelling, swearing or being spoken to in a condescending or belittling manner are accepted as "just the way it is around here." Compounding the problem is that fact that overt behavior is often just the tip of the iceberg. More commonly workplace bullying is characterized by behavior that is so covert it can be very hard to identify. It could involve intangibles like constantly changing work responsibilities, deadlines or priorities. It might be someone taking public credit for joint projects, asking for input and then ignoring it, or failing to share relevant information necessary for job success.

When such incidents form a pattern of behavior, as opposed to an isolated incident, you have a potential situation of workplace bullying. Left unchecked, the effect on the workplace can be devastating, creating a toxic work environment for the individual targeted as well as his/her co-workers. A fear-based culture is created by the bully, who, the research shows, tends to be a manger or supervisor, an individual in a position of power in the workplace. Morale, productivity, engagement and teamwork all plummet while absenteeism, conflict and turnover increase.

My experience dealing with complaints of bullying in my consulting practice confirms that in most cases workers tend to say nothing and just put up with the behavior. Employees that do complain often find that their situation is incorrectly labeled a "personality conflict." It is the lack of awareness about how bullying manifests that contributes to this misdiagnosis on the part of leaders and human resources practitioners. Those that bully commonly display a "Jekyll and Hyde" personality. They can be calculating and manipulative. The face they present to their own bosses is charming and agreeable while they paint the target as a problem employee. Inevitably, the behavior continues until it is too late, and, like "Janine," employees end up so distressed they can no longer work. Those who remain in the workplace live in fear of being the next to be targeted.

In all likelihood, that next target will be another "Janine" as opposed to a "Jim." In the past year we have been hearing a lot about the phenomenon of women bullying other women at work. While male bullies, who slightly outnumber females, tend to be gender neutral in their choice of targets, female bullies target other women more than 70 percent of the time, and like "Janine," those who are targeted are often bright, competent, hardworking and popular employees. It is those very qualities that motivate the behavior in an individual who may feel jealous and insecure, or have a need to be in control. The intention is to slowly undermine the target’s self-esteem and self-confidence.

While there are many characteristics that distinguish workplace bullying from harassment, the fundamental commonality is that they are both disrespectful, power based behaviors, which produce negative outcomes for both employees and the employers they work for. The other critical commonality is that such problem behaviors can only arise if the workplace culture condones, encourages or turns a blind eye to disrespectful behavior like bullying and harassment.

In my book Road to Respect: Path to Profit I feature five "employers of choice" who embrace respect as a core organizational value. I asked each of the individuals I spoke to from those companies whether or not they kept statistics on complaints of harassment and bullying. Inevitably I heard a variation of this response from Val Duffey, HR Director at KPMG Canada. "What people are accountable for is respectful, tolerant, diverse behavior and we measure that in the environment. They [bullying and harassment] don’t happen because they are at odds with the culture. It just wouldn’t be tolerated."

If a workplace culture promotes an attitude of cutthroat competition for opportunities, it encourages divisiveness and mistrust among employees. If it focuses on profit at the expense of workplace relationships, it erodes collaboration and teamwork. If it fosters the traditional command and control managerial model, rather than respectful leadership that aims to support and empower others, it facilitates workplace bullying. Culture shapes behavior, and behavior determines workplace relationships, performance and profitability.

Allowing disrespectful behavior to continue unchecked might just be the kiss of death for many businesses already grappling with the effects of the recession. We are witnessing an increase in incidents of disrespectful behavior at work, fuelled by the stress created by the uncertainty of the current economic climate. What business can afford to ignore the danger of disrespect? Human resources practitioners need a clear understanding of the lexicon of bullying behaviors as well as the statistics which document the devastating affect of this behavior on the bottom line.

Now is the time to be proactive. Start the conversation about power, respect and disrespect at work. Create awareness and clarify expectations about workplace relationships and leadership styles that boost both employee engagement and bottom line profits. Build a respectful workplace culture where employees can work together cohesively and productively, unconstrained by the negativity and fear that disrespectful behaviors like workplace bullying and harassment breed.

1. Workplace Bullying Institute, WBI-Zogby 2007,