How to deal with bullying at work

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Reflecting on the last decade or so, I’m poised to believe that anti-bullying campaigns aimed at workplace transgressions might have managed the opposite of their intended effect. It can’t really be helped.

A movement targeted at the verbal exertion of dominance premised by defending non-children will unwittingly reinforce the stereotype that only the weak are buffaloed by words. A reasoned mind knows well just how powerful language can be; how when drummed up the right way, a word can spar with the worst of bruises. But this has become lost because we rarely associate bullying with adults. When bullying happens to adults we call it harassment, but even that word brings a different kind of dispute to mind. However you frame it, the fact remains: Adults are cruel to each other all the time, and the tendency is actually rising.

You might have noticed a wealth of national polls and statics on the topic invading the internet as we continue to sludge through October, which is Bullying Prevention Month.  

Monica Lewinsky recently sat down with The Today Show, where she referred to the burgeoning phenomenon as an unseen “global epidemic.” Those who remember the scandal that dogs her, will in-kind agree with her to possess a privileged  insight into the folly of hive mind antics and the echoing consequences of “unseen injuries.” A new report from Monster.com, for instance, found that 94% of the nearly 3,000 employees surveyed said that they are regularly the victim of bullying at their place of work, though just as many seem to be tactically paralyzed in its wake.

A rising trend

The new poll suggests an unfortunate 20% increase since 2008, which was remarked as being high even back then. More than half of the respondents (51.1%) said that they were subjected to verbal mistreatment at the hands of their boss or manager.  The remainder of the study pool occasioned various other forms of office harassment from an array of sources. Some frequently received aggressive emails without provocation (23.3%), others were habitually the subject of workplace gossip (20.2%), and the remaining workers queried reported being yelled at with some frequency while in the presence of their peers (17.8%).

“Just because bullying is common–too common, per our survey results–doesn’t mean it’s normal,” explained Vicki Salemi, Monster Career Expert, and contributor to Forbes. “This is unacceptable behavior and it should not be normalized. If this is happening to you, and you’re on the receiving end, you deserve better! The good news is there are better bosses and companies who do treat you with respect and colleagues who don’t gossip out there.”

Addressing bullying in the workplace is a delicate thing if you ever witness it because you don’t want to imply that the victim is incapable of defending themselves. If you see it happening certainly offer assistance but mind tone and phrasing. The process survives on the exertion of power, and galloping to someone’s aid, if not executed properly, is just another articulation of that dynamic, which will make the subject feel even more powerless. Attenuation has to begin with identifying the tactics used by the perpetrator.

“The saboteur” will attempt to keep their victim from succeeding. Their motive is ultimately self-serving and has very little to do with you. The best way to deflect their efforts to sabotage you is by letting your work speak for itself. For “the gossip”  you’re an object meant to give them a leg up in the social hierarchy of your office. Given this, take solace in the fact that there is nothing you can do to alter perceptions. This is dispiriting on its face but ultimately freeing. Make friends with whoever is interested and let the rest go in good health.

“The gatekeeper” might be the hardest to adjust to. By definition, they have more authority than you do, and they get pleasure out of wielding it like a weapon. Their methods are indirect but profound. In the worst cases of this particular example, finding another place of employment might be your best bet. No job is worth your piece of mind and there is no shame in yielding to determined chaos. Submission is to rate an outcome more cheaply than you rate well being, which is more like a win from where I sit.

In should be said that most of the scenarios mentioned above end with the victim leaving their office, though not always triumphantly. This creates a phantom like effect. Before harassment can be properly addressed, the victim has moved on, taking the smoking gun with them. According to a new study, those that stay on and endure harassment forfeit engagement and drive, which leads to poor performance and sometimes termination. The very same study determined that more times than not when an employee informs their manager about being on the receiving end of rude behavior that manager more often than not views the victim as the perpetrator.  In fairness, the results of the report were initially perplexed by an additional find suggesting that many of the workers that report being bullied bully others themselves. This means,  of the majority of managers that are dubious about a victim’s provocation, a fair share are justified in their suspicion.

The authors, Shannon G. Taylor, Donald H. Kluemper, W. Matthew Bowler and Jonathon R. B. Halbesleben conducted more research to account for this limitation. Using fictitious profiles and new controlled recruitment of participants, the crunched data intimated the following: 

“Participants perceived victims as having engaged in misbehavior. And by presenting participants with clear information that some employees did not behave rudely (like Alex), we were able to demonstrate that victims are blamed for their mistreatment even when they’ve done nothing wrong. We also wanted to see if leaders’ bias toward victims extended to their assessments of the victims’ job performance, even when we provided concrete information about whether the employee was a high performer (like Alex) or a low performer (like Chris). It does: Victims of rudeness were perceived as performing considerably worse on the job than employees who hadn’t been mistreated, regardless of the employees’ actual performance.”

Thankfully,  the front lines appear to be adjusting to metrics like these, provisionally at any rate. Defending/shaming bullying sort of goes in and out of fashion depending on what the latest word is from the latest pop culture behemoth. Lewinsky, who’s been described as patient zero in reference to verbal harassment, recently teamed up with an advertising company called BBDO.  Their goal, like all the studies previously mentioned,  is to rebuke the ghosts staffing the opposition with tangible facts and psychical associations. Sometimes that means reporting on the perversion of decaying mental health affecting the majority of youths in the workforce. Sometimes it means debunking antiquated stipulations about how one is meant to conduct them selves as a “big-boy or girl,” and other times, and most persistently, these movements intend on using palpable data as a means of allying outsiders in the abstract. Declaring that epidemics don’t affect just one person like a grim blanket.

“In general, an employee should consider approaching HR when they have either tried, unsuccessfully, to address the situation with their supervisor, or feel unable to do so. So if your bully’s rank is high above your own, or you fear your bully could retaliate against you for standing up for yourself, you may want to reach out to HR. Again, have clear documentation of incidents, including dates, times, and places,” conflict resolution specialist, explained in the Monster report.