It is rather a coincidence that National Anti-bullying Day (Feb. 27) and International Women's Day (March 8) are so close together this year. Frankly, I really want to celebrate all of the accomplishments and strides that women have made in society and in the workplace, yet the area of bullying in the workplace still bothers me. In reviewing my files, I noted that my first article about the issue of bullying occurred in 2002, and I wrote about it again in 2004.
I clearly recall that I received 96 emails from people who were being bullied within three days of the second article. And here we are in the year 2013 and bullying is still an issue. Believe it or not, I continue to receive approximately two help requests per week. As someone who has been bullied myself at least three times throughout my earlier career, it pains me a great deal to hear these latest stories.
Yet, we mustn't forget that there have been many accomplishments and much progress in this area. For instance, awareness about bullying has significantly increased both within the school environment and within the workplace. Corporations and not for profits alike are diligently setting about instituting policies, procedures and training programs to make their employees more aware of how to recognize bullying and also how to handle situations at work.
However, the issue of bullying seems to have become more complicated as information technology has interwoven so much into our lives. For instance, we now have social media tools that enable bullies to torment their targets with just one stroke on the keyboard. While cyber-bullying is now rampant among young students, we are already seeing that bullying and cyber-bullying are fast becoming the latest legal practice specialty.
While I applaud organizations for putting policies and practices in place and training managers as well as employees, I am well aware that bullying in the workplace continues, but perhaps more "underground" than in previous years. Let's face it; people know that aggressive yelling, swearing or ridiculing is no longer tolerated.
However, this obvious behaviour has been replaced by quiet yet insidious personal intimidation, outright manipulation, explicit attempts to exclude the bully targets as well as engaging in gossip and falsehoods both inside and outside an organization. Today, I am hearing that workplace bullying often seems to be more about forming tight cliques of "think-alike" individuals who attempt to push colleagues out of the way.
Unfortunately, in many cases, a leader is the bully. Senior professionals, who as a result of their own personal insecurity manipulate a group of their employees to serve only them. Those employees who don't fit the clique are subtly forced out and/or the leader will manipulate the situation so that the individual is transferred out of their department. The cycle then starts again with the new employee either fitting in or over time being transferred out.
The shame of it all is that in this case loyalty to the organization is shifted to loyalty to the departmental leader, which more than likely is detrimental to the employer overall. And, in this case, it takes a very astute executive leader to recognize their manager's bully pattern and finally deal with it. In the meantime, there is usually a great deal of damage to the organization that will need to be rectified.
In my earlier 2004 article on bullying, I mentioned that it's difficult to categorize a bully. Gary Namie, co-author of Bully at Work (2003) and president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute named four types of female bullies. Today, I see that at least three of his definitions are suitable to the "underground" style practised today by both male and female bullies. These include:
Constant Critic -- a bully who is constantly relaying belittling comments and personal criticism, aggressive eye contact and physical body language that outwardly displays discontent. The individual bully never takes personal responsibility but is always blaming others for missed work deadlines or errors.
Two-Headed Snake -- this bully exhibits a dishonest and indirect personal style that consists of a phony friendliness while at the same time, sabotaging their target. The individual lies outright, trashes their victim, steals credit for their work and/or manipulates a situation such that the target is made to look bad.
Gatekeeper -- according to Namie, a gatekeeper or control freak is the absolute bully. The individual will always try to play the game of "one upmanship," give you the silent treatment or withhold information or resources to do your job.
Thankfully, most managers today are more fully aware of bullying and the harm it can do to an organization and it individuals. They are sensitive to the signs of frustration, are more open to receiving early complaints of bullying behaviour and have more confidence in dealing with issues as they arise.
On the other hand, employees, too, are more knowledgeable about what bullying is and how to protect themselves. Women and, in particular younger women, have gained more confidence in speaking up and confronting the bully themselves. As well, many more organizations in today's work environment have their own human resource professional on staff that can not only investigate complaints but can act as an advocate. At the same time, however, I do continue to encounter employees who are still afraid to confront especially when it is their boss who is the bully.
Thankfully, in today's workplace, most organizations provide access to "employee assistance programs" where individual employees can go for personal help. Referring your employee to a program such as this is essential as anxiety, fear and helplessness can cause such significant stress that individuals will simply not be functional.
I am confident that training and development on the issue of bullying, plus the implementation of legislation and organizational policies and practices on the prevention of bullying, have gone a long way to helping organizations curb the growth of bullying in their workplace. As well, there appears to be much more attention paid to creating a respectful workplace culture.
It's been almost 10 years since I wrote my first article on bullying in the workplace. While I am pleased to learn that much has improved, I am somewhat disheartened at the same time that bullying continues to exist at all. Perhaps the next generations coming into the workplace will take us the next step toward the kind of workplace culture that all of us want to see.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org