Making Moves Toward a Bully-Free Workplace

Gary Namie

HRIQ speaks with Gary Namie, co-author of The Bully Free Workplace. Namie explains what managers need to know about harassment and bullying, and what they can do to stop it.

1. Let’s begin our discussion by defining "bullying in the workplace." How common is it and why should it be a major concern for company leaders?

First, let me be clear that we distinguish bullying from incivility, inappropriateness, rudeness and disrespect. Our definition is "repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees directed toward another employee that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, and humiliation, interference with work production or in some combination." It is a form of abuse. It is recognized by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a non-physical form of workplace violence. Bullying is not merely an arched eyebrow or raised voice, it is a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction launched by one person, with many others soon joining in, to destroy another person's health, status, identity, job, career, and sometimes even their family.

We know from the national scientific studies we've run in 2010 and 2007 that 35 percent of all adult Americans have been directly bullied, according to our definition.

Business leaders should care because of its impact on employee health, work productivity impaired by excessive absenteeism, turnover (loss) of the best and brightest workers, workers comp and disability claims and litigation expenses. They should care, but those same national surveys found that the most likely response by employers to reported bullying was to ignore or worsen it.

2. What is the most common bully-target relationship in terms of roles? Why?

Bullying is mostly top-down. Bullies outrank their targets in 72 percent of cases (2007 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey). Coworkers are perpetrators in 18 percent of incidents; 10 percent of the time it is a brave subordinate who bullies up the ladder.

Why? It is simply easier to inflict pain when you have title power. Coworkers can make your life miserable through ostracism (no small thing), but they cannot threaten to take your job away as the employer can. With so few people in unions, anyone can be fired for any reason on a whim.

All bullies share the need to control other people. They are bright, but not introspective or self-critical and they need to dominate to feel whole. There is an overwhelming narcissism that compels every action. Unless others agree to follow, they will be banished. Narcissism is not restricted to any position in an organization chart.

3. What are some researched effects of bullying and why do targets often neglect to speak up?

Bullying of adults by adults involves a great deal of shame and guilt. Shame is the bully's goal from humiliating the target. Half of bullying is behind closed doors, so without explicitly telling friends and family, it is the bully’s and target's secret. Personal guilt can arise because the person is mad that she or he allowed the bullying to happen. Bullies choose their targets, methods, timing, and place, but somehow, targets internalize responsibility, or shared responsibility (from our societal "it takes two to tango" or the equally inane "there are two sides to every story"), for what is happening to them. Shame and guilt prevent targets from speaking up.

In addition, the work culture is clear to those who work there. Complainers are dubbed troublemakers and retaliated against.

Research on the effects of bullying on individuals is extensive. The studies come from the fields of occupational health, epidemiology, medicine, neuroscience, and social sciences. A summary breaks the impact on people into three categories of harm: health, social relations and economic.

Health harm begins with stress-related physical health consequences. Cardiovascular system impact has the earliest onset -- hypertension. High blood pressure results from abusive supervisors. The risk of coronary heart disease is 40 percent greater if workers believe their supervisors are unjust and bullies go well beyond being unjust. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is measured routinely in studies and is found to be too high in people exposed to unremitting mistreatment. Most fascinating is that prolonged stress ages women prematurely, costing them 9-12 years of life expectancy, based on studies measuring telomeres -- the protective tips of DNA chromosomes.

Health harm is also the psychological-emotional impact, ranging from debilitating anxiety to clinical depression induced by work to PTSD to suicide. Our online (non-scientific) surveys found that 39 percent of targets have been diagnosed with depression and 30 percent of women targets suffer PTSD. Doubters don't think work can traumatize individuals, but remember bullying creates an abusive relationship. Abuse can traumatize, not everyone, but far too many.

Harm to social relationships primarily involves ostracism, social exclusion, by coworkers. Targets are treated as pariahs once targeted. Coworkers do little to help - they fear for their own safety and status.

Economic harm is clear. The most effective current way to stop the bullying is for the target to lose the job she or he once loved. According to our 2007 national study, 40 percent quit (probably for their health's sake). An additional 24 percent were fired (by manufactured performance reports or other lies).

4. You draw an interesting parallel between bullying and Darwinism – the concept of survival of the fittest – stating how certain corporate cultures designated by CEOs to weed out the least effective workers and bullying might beneficial for such a goal. Needless to say, CEOs are often thinking very differently than others in their business – how could an anti-bullying campaign appeal to the CEO? How should one build a case?

Yes, bullies and their apologists are social Darwinists. The organizing principle that dominates the entire company is the CEO's narcissism. He (and it's a "he" in 97 percent of firms in the U.S.) sets the tone.

Jack Welch comes to mind. He is granted hero status, forgetting his old moniker of "Neutron Jack" who had the reputation of obliterating companies of workers.

I agree that CEOs do think differently. Welch taught his CEO colleagues to focus on shareholder value and short-term profits. His famous strategy of firing 10 percent of workers regardless of performance, to keep them afraid, is simply not human. Unfortunately, that mindset has been adopted by sheep-like Welchians. It's easy to be cruel.

Some leaders are different people but with a personal moral inner directedness. They stand out because of their rarity. Not everyone believes treating workers like chattel is sufficient. Some can see value in long-term viability, not simply having monotonically rising quarterly profits.

I draw this distinction because without CEO approval (and some degree of participation), there can be no anti-bullying initiative success in the long-run. The CEOs who have brought us in to deal with bullying fall into two categories: early adopters and the legacy-oriented. It is counter-cultural to want to stop bullying that historically has been the characterization of the American style of managing. Bold contrarian CEOs love to be first to adopt a new program before it becomes a fad. Public awareness of workplace bullying has grown exponentially since we started back in mid-97 and corporate attorneys are warning their clients to not ignore the problems bullying causes.

Legacy-oriented leaders may be transitioning to a different post or the final phase of their careers. They want to leave behind something for which they can be remembered. The legacy can be within the industry, among their peer CEOs or for the workers at the company they led. Their gift is to establish a bullying-free workplace with their name attached.

Sadly, the impersonal, traditional business-case arguments that bullying increases risk exposure and that it eats into the bottom line fall onto deaf ears. The personal bonds between executives and their beloved bullies trump fiscal impact, though it makes no business sense. It is a world turned upside down, driven by favoritism and ingratiation, but it is more tangible and real than balance sheets.

The ROI for an anti-bullying program is great. But as long as "Bob the bully" is free to operate with the CEO's blessing (or implicit approval through his indifference to complaints), stopping bullying will appear expensive when in fact it is the bully who is too expensive to keep!

5. What are other contributing factors that could lead to a bullying situation in terms of personality types and environment?

Most people begin with the assumption that bullies must be crazy or disturbed. Not so. Most bullies are not psychopaths; however those who bully are certainly narcissistic. They have an inflated sense of themselves relative to what others think, but they need not have a certifiable personality disorder. They are egocentric and selfish though that is true of many millions of us.

Bullies are astute at reading cues in the work environment. For instance, they see subtleties that others miss. They see that aggressive acts are noticed by management, which, in turn, are rewarded. Sometimes the reward is a promotion though more likely it's the granting of special privileges. Those of us who are not bullies might see it and decide that it is deplorable to take advantage of another person but bullies see it as a skill necessary for political survival and career progress. Then, when they are aggressive themselves and reap personal rewards for doing to, the pattern is established. It is simple learning theory -- positive reinforcement increases the likelihood that the rewarded behavior will reoccur.

Bullying is always a mix of personality of the bully and target and work environment. But environment is more influential than personality. Regardless of the person's disposition, if conditions are engineered to create and sustain bullying, most employees can act like bullies at work. They do not become bullies in other domains of their lives. At work, however, they slip into a role and follow the unwritten script. The power of environment over personality is backed by decades of social psychological research.

6. If
one is a bystander or witness to a bullying situation, is it his/her responsibility to do something? How should he/she proceed?

We would all like to think we would jump to rescue another person in danger. A bullied target is in danger, but we know from experience and research that others do relatively nothing. We imagine a brave encounter with the bully when the coworker stands shoulder to shoulder with the target and counterattacks. That's myth. It happens less than 1 percent of the time (according to our 2008 study).

So, why expect coworkers to help when they see a target emerge from a closed-door berating and slip into her or his cubicle without saying a word? Social influence is strongest when situations are ambiguous or murky. A witness can rationalize not doing anything by concluding that he was misinterpreting what he saw and that it was not his business to butt into someone else's privacy.

You are not likely to be there during the bullying incident. The target will describe events later. Gather all the other coworkers and establish that the response will have to be undertaken by the group. Purposefully share the responsibility. Decide what to do together -- go two levels over the bully's head or confront the bully in person -- and have all participate. Power comes from a unified group. Stick to holding the person accountable because of the disruption of work, not because they have a warped personality. Make an impersonal financial impact argument to the highest level manager you can find without accidentally complaining to the bully's relative or the boss who hired him.

Interview conducted by Taylor Korsak, Editorial Intern for Human Resources iQ.