Stop Bullying

Supporting Victims of Workplace Bullying

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) around 54 million American employees will be bullied in the workplace over their working life. However research by Communications Professor Stacy Tye-Williams from Iowa State University has shown that many victims suffer in silence rather than report the bully.

The formal definition of workplace bullying according to the WBI is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

  • Threatening, humiliating or intimidating, or
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or
  • Verbal abuse

Professor Tye-Williams collected narratives from 48 bullying victims from various fields for her study including professional and technical, education, health care, banking and finance as well as the military. Of the people she spoke to more than half reported being bullied by their boss or manager or by a co-worker, however many of these people didn’t report the bully and Professor Tye-Williams says there are a range of reasons for this.

“Many of the participants felt no one would believe them, or they were afraid of being labeled as a big cry-baby or a whiner, so they didn’t tell a manager or someone else in the organisation. When you experience serious trauma in the workplace, it’s difficult to explain to people what is happening to you,” she says.

Professor Tye-Williams found that it was challenging for many of the victims to find the right words to explain what had happened to them or to recall the events in a logical order and how to describe how the bullying started and escalated.

She also said the passage of time made it hard for victims to identify the presence of a problem and the escalation of that problem, because bullying often starts with subtle behaviours that can be hard to identify and label.

This lack of cohesiveness can affect the believability of story and make it more challenging to report.

“When the story is all over the place and feels disjointed or disconnected, people don’t understand or they can’t make sense of what happened. Then what often happens is the victim is not taken seriously or not believed, which is really sad because these victims tend to be the ones suffering most.”

The role of co-workers

Victims of workplace bullying may feel marginalised in the workplace if they feel that other employees are witnessing the bullying but not willing to become involved. Professor Tye-Wiliams says that many co-workers may want to help but don’t feel as though they have the power to change the situation or fear they too will be bullied. The advise from Professor Tye-Williams for people in this situation is that you can talk and provide support without putting yourself in the firing line.

“Even if you’re not comfortable as a co-worker reporting the behaviour, letting the victim tell you their story, go with you to have a drink and vent, or just feel believed can help. For a lot of victims, that process of being believed and having someone to listen to their story is crucial in helping them better communicate about their experience.”

The role of managers

If an employee does report a case of bullying, it is important for managers to reserve judgement, no matter how confused or unsystematic a story is. Professor Tye-Williams says it is crucial that managers stop, listen and ask questions, this will help the person organise their thoughts and make it easier for the manager to understand what has happened.

In smaller businesses a significant roadblock could be created when a manager or boss is the bully and in situations like this there needs to be concerted effort to initiate change in an organisational culture and to create mechanisms for employees to come forward in safety.

Eliminating workplace bullying

In an article for Fast Company Beverly Younger, associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social work says there are three strategies employers can implement to prevent bullying from impacting the workplace.

1. Create an anti-bullying culture

In many cases, bullying can trickle through an organization and become ingrained in the company’s culture. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, workplace bullying behaviour can be contagious. This is true especially if such behaviour seems to be rewarded. Getting the message out to everyone in the organisation that bullying behaviours are inappropriate and won’t be tolerated or rewarded is an important step to preventing your workplace from turning into a schoolyard.

2. Create formal policies against bullying behavior
This includes mechanisms for reporting bullies and the inclusion of anti-bullying measures in employee codes of conduct and performance assessments.

3.  Provide services
Making training available and ensuring employee assistance programs contain resources for targets of bullying to seek counselling and support is a great way for organisations to demonstrate their intolerance to workplace bullying.

Further reading and references

Fast Company: Why Bullies Get Promoted

Bullies in the Workplace

Workplace Bullying Institute