Say "bully," and people think of school days, and the big kid on the bus who demanded everyone's milk money or, nowadays, their iPod.
But if you think bullying is unique to the pre-teen and teen-age years, think again. Researchers find bullies are alive and well in the workplace. Indeed, a 2007 survey found 13 percent of more than 7,000 adults had seen some form of bullying in the workplace over the previous 12 months. Another 24 percent had seen it at some earlier point in their career. Specific examples included stolen lunch money (sound familiar?), firing without cause, identify theft, planting illegal drugs in a co-worker's vehicle and, in two cases, arson.
Technically, the Zogby International survey defined workplace bullying as sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, or humiliation. Is the workplace really so dog-eat-dog?
Dr. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Wash., and co-author of The Bully at Work, recommends not confusing tough love with being a jerk. "A tough manager is tough on everyone, but there's a fairness and consistency to it, and when the product is done and out in the market, there's a celebration together," he explains. By contrast, "bullying is a systematic, laser-focused campaign of interpersonal destruction."
Bullies might argue otherwise. "Bullies are always claiming to be misunderstood," Namie says. "From their perspective, the target always makes them do it. 'You provoked me.' You know the mantra of personal responsibility? Well, they're never responsible for their own actions."
The Bully Pulpit
Just who bullies whom? In terms of gender, Zogby found male bullies dish it out almost equally between the sexes, while female bullies are 2.5 times more likely to target other women. However, bullies are overwhelmingly managers. "To be a petty tyrant, you have to be a boss with title power, to make good on the threats," notes Namie.
One bright spot: Bullying may be relatively less common in the technology industry, which needs to retain scarce talent, especially because younger workers typically lack Boomer-era notions of stability and life employment. In other words, they aren't afraid to walk. Observes Namie: "This really compels employers to treat these people as a valuable resource, as opposed to interchangeable cogs."
Does Incivility Take Two?
"There's never been, in the history of the world, any society in which everybody was always happy in their workplace," notes Izzy Kalman, a Staten Island, N.Y. psychotherapist who specializes in bullying and anger management. Accordingly, he recommends trying to avoid falling victim to bullying by defusing bad behavior with nice, and pursuing techniques "for turning an enemy into a friend."
For example, avoid attacking others or defending yourself: It shows you fear the other person. Show pain (which makes the other person feel sorry), not anger (which begets more anger). Rather than immediately complaining to management, first try to deal with perceived problems directly, which can help you build mutual respect.
One frequent workplace problem Kalman sees is miscommunication. For example, employees think their boss is demanding perfection, when the boss is really demanding respect. In other words, for both parties it's often not what you say, but how you say it.
When to Fight Back
Of course, some managers really are abusive, operating "just below physical battery, but above incivility, in terms of its impact on people," says Namie. In such situations, he recommends workers take three steps: label it bullying, take time off to attend to your physical and mental health, and build a business case against the bully. In the last step, detail in financial terms the detrimental effects of the bullying - such as missed deadlines, turnover, and lost revenues - and present this to the most senior manager possible.
Knowing you're being bullied doesn't come easily. Our natural inclination is to trust people. "All targets are at first an apologist for the bully," says Namie, who sees tech workers as being especially susceptible. "The more you have your nose to the grindstone, the more easily you miss it," he says. You also miss the accompanying environmental cues, such as the horrified or apologetic reactions of co-workers.
Be Prepared to Walk
Unfortunately, bullying complaints don't tend to resolve in the employee's favor. According to Zogby, in just one-third of cases companies do provide help. However, almost half of the time companies either do nothing, or make the problem worse. Bullying situations resolve only when the bullied employee leaves (40 percent), transfers (13 percent), or is terminated (24 percent).
Despite those odds, don't stay quiet and don't blame yourself, says Namie. Both your emotional health and your career are at stake. "People need to do the fight-back for their emotional health, and if the employer won't make you safe, you don't need that job," he says.