Photo Credit: M. Gilbert/The Image Bank/Getty Images
At first, Deb F. was flattered when a higher-up at a Boston-area university showed an interest in her work. Then things changed. “For no reason, the supervisor badmouthed my work, left me out of important decision-making meetings and assigned my projects to others.” At 31, Deb had become a victim of workplace bullying.
Bullies at work aren’t new, but awareness about the problem is growing thanks in part to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s (WBI) efforts to get states to pass an anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. “A third of American workers are bullied,” says WBI co-founder Gary Namie, Ph.D., coauthor of The Bully-Free Workplace. Even more unsettling: Workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination, yet it’s not illegal. For now, the best you can do if you’re targeted by a work bully is to arm yourself with this knowledge.
Distinguish between bullying and harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits acts of harassment, which typically center on physical traits or characteristics like race, color, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disabilities. “If you’re white, able-bodied, or the same gender as your bully, you really have no legal recourse,” says Namie.
Recognize the problem. Bullying occurs when an employee is repeatedly subjected to verbal abuse; threatening or humiliating offensive behaviors; and/or work sabotage. “We’re talking about mistreatment that happens once a week or more for several months,” says Namie.
Beware of the health effects. Almost half of bullied workers suffer from stress-related health problems like anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. A third develop post-traumatic stress disorder. “My self-esteem took a hit,” says Deb. “I couldn’t sleep. I worked in a constant state of fear.”
Know your limits. Almost three-fourths of instigators are in positions of power. Fear of retribution keeps most coworkers from speaking out (only 1 out of 100 tries to help). Sadly, going to human resources (as Deb did) probably won’t help. “They defended management, and things only got worse for me once the bully found out,” says Deb, who left her job after a year. “The bullying took too much of a toll on my mental and physical health.”
4 Steps for Handling Workplace Bullying
1.Talk to an attorney. Discrimination plays a role in a quarter of bullying cases. A lawyer can help identify whether your employer has violated any laws.
2.Plan a counterattack. “Show higher-ups -- not HR -- how the bullying negatively affects profitability,” says Namie. This means putting a dollar amount to what it costs the company to recruit and replace employees scared off by the bully, as well as absenteeism and lost productivity.
3.Start a job search. Exposing the bully is cathartic; unfortunately, it’s unlikely to change things. The odds that you’ll quit or be terminated are nearly 70 percent. Get your resume out now.
4.Lobby your state legislators. The Healthy Workplace Bill is currently under consideration in 13 states. Visit HealthyWorkplaceBill.org to learn how you can help get it passed.