The Curse of the Workplace Bully

Is losing your temper at work ever acceptable?

I'll admit it: I watch gossipy entertainment shows. I really don't care what Brangelina is doing on any given day, or if Britney has some new drama going on. I watch the shows because they are silly and funny and they don't remind me of work. Until last night.

One of the top stories was a replay of a recording of actor Christian Bale, someone whose work I've enjoyed, berating the director of photography on the set of the film “Terminator: Salvation.” Although the event occurred last summer, the audio (allegedly recorded through Bale's microphone) only recently saw the light of day.

During the filming of what was described as an “intense” scene, Shane Hurlbut, the director of photography, walked onto the set and interrupted filming. The interruption caused Bale to unleash a torrent of nearly 40 f-bombs and other expletives, question Hurlbut's professionalism and threaten to sabotage Hurlbut's work. The tongue-lashing — which at one point seemed to nearly turn physical — went on for nearly 4 minutes. The more Hurlbut apologized, the angrier Bale appeared to become.

Ah, I thought: work and entertainment suddenly have collided.

What Bale did was bully a coworker, and bullying is a subject we've covered in this magazine and on our Web site. Was Bale's episode of bullying ongoing over a period of weeks or months, or was it, as Bruce Franklin, an assistant director and associate producer on the film, suggested, “just a moment and it passed?”

In 2007, the Workplace Bullying Institute wrote a survey used by Zogby International to conduct 7,740 online interviews about bullying that found that 77 percent of the targets of bullies quit or were fired. Generally, the bullies suffered no adverse consequences to their actions. Interestingly enough, Bale threatened to have the victim of his bullying fired, and one of Bale's employers, Franklin, appears to be taking Bale's side. The survey results bare this attitude out: In 62 percent of the cases, when made aware of bullying, employers worsen the problem or simply do nothing, despite losing an estimated 21-28 million workers because of bullying.

DEFINING THE PROBLEM

The institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” Bullying takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) that are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done.

The 2007 survey found that 37 percent of American workers, an estimated 54 million people, have been bullied at work. It affects half (49 percent) of American workers — 71.5 million people — when witnesses to bullying are included.

Quite frankly, it is a national embarrassment that the U.S. Department of Labor, thought to be one of the leaders in meeting the challenges of workplace health and safety issues, has not taken action against bullying.

THE HEALTHY WORKPLACE BILL

The Workplace Bullying Institute wants to change all that and has come up with the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, which:

  • Defines precisely an abusive work environment.
  • Prohibits only severe, health- harming mistreatment and requires documentation.
  • Plugs gaps in existing anti- discriminatory laws, extends protections against abuse to all.
  • Frees responsible employers from liability while perpetrators are held accountable.
  • Is enforced only via private action: no employer mandates, no state fiscal impact.

The bill has been introduced in some form in 14 states by 121 sponsoring legislators since 2003. However, no state or federal anti-bullying bill has become law anywhere in the United States.

“You're pretty much on your own in the United States,” said Dr. Gary Namie, cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, of bullying. “You are left to your own devices. You are left to solve your own problem that is not of your own making.”

Workplace policies often are based on laws, he said, adding, “Bullying is legal.” Bullying also is four times more prevalent than illegal forms of “harassment.”

That's why anti-bullying legislation is so important. “We need to get it turned into law, to provide protection for everyone regardless of gender, race, ethnicity and the rest,” said Namie.

The Workplace Bullying Institute has a comprehensive Web site that offers various resources. Visit http://bullyinginstitute.org for more information.


Send an email with your thoughts to [email protected].

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