Bullies in the workplace

One in six people are victims of workplace bullies, according to a recent survey conducted by the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (CAWB) at www.bullybusters.org, a 3-year-old nonprofit group located in Benicia, Calif. Some 1,335 people, all targets of workplace bullies, voluntarily completed the survey online in 2000.* The Campaign defined bullying as “the deliberate, hurtful verbal mistreatment of a person (the target) by a cruel perpetrator (the bully).”

Men and women are equally likely to be bullies, though women are more likely to be targets of harassers, reveal survey results. Some 81% of bullies rank higher professionally than their targets, and the average age of bullies is 44. Targets who completed the survey described bullies as screamers who yell at targets (14%), controllers (20%), verbal assaulters (30%), and manipulators (36%). Nearly half (46%) of bullies humiliate their targets in public, while 34% berate targets in private. Another 20% meet with targets behind closed doors, but verbally abuse them loudly enough to be heard by others. The average length of psychological violence perpetuated by bullies against targets is 16.5 months.

Many bullies are “equal opportunity harassers,” bullying more than one person in their workplace. According to CAWB, this type of behavior shields the bully and the host employer from legal liability because there’s no law against cruelty, just discrimination. “Our research indicates that workplace bullying is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment,” says Gary Namie, CAWB president and Ph.D. in social psychology. “Employers respond to sexual harassment claims for fear of being sued, but there’s nothing on the books to address bullies.”

Some reasons for bullying include failure of the targets to comply with the wishes of the bully and bullies’ envy of their targets’ competence or social skills in the workplace. Some 42% of bosses of bullies actually aided the bully in their abuse, or punished the complaining target, while 40% of bosses didn’t intervene. “Nothing happens to these folks [bullies] because 81% of the time the bullies are managers,” says Namie. “Management thinks it’s more important to protect the organization than to do the right thing.”

Another surprising statistic is that 11% of co-workers side with bullies. Targets who completed the survey said their health consequences included stress and excessive worry, headaches, loss of sleep, loss of concentration, and paranoia in the workplace.

Employers should be concerned because targets of bullies are typically introverted types who may react—unless they are helped—by injuring themselves. Employer-relevant information is available at www.workdoctor.com, which is affiliated with CAWB. According to Namie, the Campaign hopes to introduce a law in California by 2002 that would compel employers to address workplace cruelty.

Namie offers suggestions for targets: Get past the surprise and don’t ruminate about a bully’s motives, don’t blame yourself, and make a decision to stay and fight or leave. Finally, whether you stay or leave, expose the bully. “Make a business case to employers as to why the bully is too expensive to keep on staff, such as good talent quitting and possible court costs,” says Namie. “But if you don’t get a response, leave. That workplace is not a safe one for you to be in.”

At press time, Namie intended to post a new survey at www.bullybusters.org and at www.workdoctor.com. For more information on bullies in the workplace, check out Namie’s book The Bully At Work, available from Sourcebooks Publishing, Naperville, Ill.

* Of survey respondents, 35% said they were corporate employees, 33% said they were government employees (government employees represent 12% of the entire U.S. workforce), 13% said they worked in a family business, and 19% said they worked for nonprofit organizations.