The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Workplace Bullying: More Common – and Damaging – Than You Think

by Gael O'Brien

When we think of bullying, school kids come to mind, fueled by the powerful, recently-released film Bully, and tragic headlines of teen suicide.  More than 13 million school kids and teens in the United States will be targets of bullies this year, according to the film.

Bullying is also a growing problem in the workplace -- in the U.S, and globally.

More than 54 million people will be bullied in U.S. workplaces this year, estimates Dr. Gary Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute. It is a problem Dr. Namie and others have turned to state legislatures to address. So far this year, 13 states have introduced a Healthy Workplace Bill, which includes bullying in the definition of an abusive work environment. Since 2003, legislation has been introduced in 21 states, none enacted.

Many countries have turned to legal remedies: Turkey and parts of Australia have enacted provisions against workplace bullying; Serbia is one of nine European countries banning it; and the United Kingdom, France, and Japan have enacted new laws or expanded existing statutes.

A recent poll of adults in Britain (conducted for the Institute of Business Ethics) ranked harassment and bullying in the workplace 6th out of a list of 15 top concerns.

Intentional vs. Unintentional Bullying

The implications of workplace bullying are far reaching. At a minimum, it affects safety, engagement, productivity, trust, and the workplace culture. It poses the question to leaders, just how important is a healthy work culture to business and long-term success?

No culture is ideal – there are always issues that need attention – but fundamentally, what is tolerated, reinforced, or routed out in pursuit of business success creates the reality of the culture.

Bullying in the U.S. isn’t illegal unless the bullying addresses an already protected area of discrimination like race, gender, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation.

Absent no universally accepted way of defining it, bullying is defined here as including intimidation through power, position, influence, tone, language, or height, where people feel threatened, mistreated, disrespected, humiliated, undermined, or sabotaged; and where undue stress and anxiety are created that impact emotional well being, health, or work product.

In talking about workplace bullying with ethics and compliance officers and consultants at a recent Southern California Business Ethics Roundtable meeting, one colleague shared a story about how a company had fumbled on the bullying issue. An internal candidate with a history of documented bullying had been promoted to vice president. The reason? The VP of Human Resources, involved in the promotion, hadn’t been made aware of his own team’s knowledge of the candidate’s history, and the team hadn’t known that individual was being considered for promotion.

This wouldn’t have been the case if the documented issues had been sexual harassment.

There are parallels between workplace attitudes to sexual harassment nearly 20 years ago and workplace bullying now. Do we need more awareness, research, reporting up, or legislation to curtail incidents of workplace bullying, the way those factors (plus class action suits) changed how sexual harassment prevention is handled?

Bullying is complex. While there are mean and abrasive characters in the workplace preying on others’ vulnerabilities, often bullying can be unintentional. It can stem from a lack of self awareness and poor EQ, (emotional intelligence) or be the result of over used strengths of passion, aggressive style, or forceful expression. Peers, managers, and bosses can cross over into bullying, particularly when problems surface.

“People don’t always hear how they sound to other people” points out Joel Katz, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer at CA Technologies.

“I’ve known good managers who are passionate about what they do, and over the course of their careers sometimes their coaching or counseling comes across as confronting or angry.” says Katz whose training was employment law. “They are truly stunned,” when you share the feedback that they handled a situation poorly or raised their voice, he says.

Where there is a repeated pattern of someone acting in a way that isn’t consistent with our values, Katz says,” we will try coaching; if it doesn’t work out, the person needs to be taken out of the management role.”

CA Technologies has four core values, Katz says. “First is respect for people. If you allow things like bullying and harassment to go on in the workplace, it creates such a toxic environment that it really undermines anything you are trying to accomplish from a business perspective.”

CA, earning a reputation for engaging ethics and compliance training, recently added to its series a video dealing with profanity and abusive treatment, which posted on YouTube last month.

The question regarding workplace bullying is whether respect, a commonly used value to describe how people treat each other, can in reality be important enough to leaders that it is expected, coached, required, and reinforced?

Impact on Corporate Value

Apple, a phenomenally profitable company, has been successful in spite of Steve Jobs’ intolerant, harsh and sometimes cruel management style.

That raises another question: does being perceived a winner and paying people well trump all? Or merely self-select the people who endure environments like that? And if so, what is lost by the exodus of others that could drive future success?

We know that ways to reinforce a culture of respect involve tone at the top, leading by example, policies, training, reinforcement, reporting, coaching, and consequences when bullying behavior doesn’t change.

It starts with tone at the top: I asked Philip Green, a Meggitt  director and president of Meggitt-USA about bullying recently after a speech he’d given. “I am not prepared to tolerate it, neither is executive management,” he replied. “It destroys value if you don’t deal with it quickly.”

However, the bigger picture impacting culture is how companies, while fulfilling their responsibilities, can also involve all parts of their organization so that a healthy work culture engages the ongoing vigilance of everyone.

One approach is to look at the lessons gained from movements providing effective tools to help people take a stand in constructive ways when what matters to them is challenged.

Giving Voice to Values  is a curriculum in undergraduate and graduate education that encourages students to practice ways to voice their values. The premise is that as values conflicts are part of life,  practice using a variety of tools makes it easier to respond effectively in difficult situations, speaking up for oneself and others.

The Bully Project,  an outgrowth of the film, demonstrates how students and parents can take a stand against bullying. The issues  in the film are supported by Facing History and Ourselves  which wrote the study guide to facilitate classroom discussions about behavior, empathy, and taking action against bullying in their community.

The actions leaders and organizations take in response to workplace bullying depend on how important a healthy work culture is to business and long-term success.

Gael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics

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