Dealing with the Workplace Bully

School Nutrition’s December 2013 issue looked at personal safety issues from a number of different angles, including an in-depth look at the generations-long epidemic of bullying (“Why You Gotta Be So Mean?”). While the article focused primarily on the types of bullying that affect today’s youth, it’s important to recognize that bullying behavior can happen on the job, as well. Author Susan Davis Gryder offers some additional thoughts on raising your awareness about workplace bullies.

Many of us who were happy to see our K-12 school days grow smaller in the rearview mirror have been shocked to discover that sometimes schoolyard bullies grow up and take their attitudes and methods into the workplace and elsewhere in the adult world. You might encounter bullies who are bosses or co-workers, and who often use the power differential that is inherent in the workplace hierarchy to create hostile and intimidating work environments.

Workplace bullying can be tricky to separate from garden-variety poor management. If a boss yells at everyone, he or she is probably just a bad boss. But if that boss singles out an employee for humiliating or abusive treatment, or excludes that employee from company activities, bullying might be at play. Sometimes, when workplace bullying is based on the victim’s membership in a protected class (such as gender or ethnicity), then it crosses the line into actual harassment. Estimates suggest that more than one-third of all employees with experience workplace bullying.

Adult victims of workplace bullying suffer real effects as a consequence. In addition to both short and long-term effects bullying can have on a person’s earning power and career advancement, workplace bullying can lead to

  • low productivity;
  • absenteeism;
  • negative health effects; and even
  • post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fortunately, institutional indifference and legal tolerance of workplace bullying is becoming an attitude of the past. The Society of Human Resource Management and other groups are disseminating best practices and model policies to address the issue. Over the last decade, 21 state legislatures have considered anti-bullying bills (although none so far have been enacted).

An organization’s human resources department is usually the first stop for an employee who is the victim of a workplace bully, and it should have systems in place to deal with the situation and provide relief to the victim. While correcting the situation is important, it presents challenges when employees often keep silent and policies are unclear or inconsistently enforced. To that end, more organizations are trying to focus on prevention efforts.

For more on how to handle workplace bullying, especially a review of signs associated with both becoming a bully and being the target of a bully, be sure to check out “Putting an End to Workplace Bullying,” found in the June/July 2012 issue of School Nutrition in the “It’s Your Business” column.

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