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Beyond the Playground: When Bullying Elbows Its Way Into the Workplace

April 9, 2013
Workplace bullying is costly in terms of morale, productivity, emotional well-being and a company's bottom line – and yet too many employers allow it to happen.

A few years ago, Maria had never even heard the term "workplace bullying." But by the time she shared with EHS Today the path her professional life has taken in recent years, she used words like "traumatized," "powerless,"  "hostility,"  "retaliation,"  "mafia" and "war zone." All this from a self-described happy, optimistic person who loved her job as a nurse and who never expected to become the target of bullying at work. 

"When you love what you do, it doesn't seem like work," says Maria, who has been employed in various nursing roles at the same organization for years. (To protect her privacy, Maria's name and identifying details have been changed.) "I was naïve – I thought everyone in the health care field just cared about people."

See Also: Bullying & Harassment in the Workplace

Maria's problems began when she accepted a management position at another facility within the organization, where she says that as an outsider, she was not well received by the staff. The tension mounted after she reported a staff member for behaving inappropriately with a patient. The worker was fired, which outraged the rest of the employees.

"People just hit the roof," Maria says.  "People think once they're [in this organization], they have a job for life. They thought, ‘Who is this young woman to get this person terminated?'"

Maria eventually transferred to another facility within the same organization, where she hoped to get a fresh start. What she found, however, was a workplace culture rife with fear and intimidation and where employees banded together in cliques, avoided work and ganged up on other workers. Maria encouraged her staff to work together and put patient care first, but they responded by bullying her, ostracizing her and doing their best to get her transferred or fired. 

"Some days I actually feel like I've been in this war zone," says Maria, who has since hired an attorney and filed a whistleblower complaint. "I've worked in this hostile environment, all while trying to advocate for those at the bedside ... There are some amazing nurses who just want to come to work and provide good patient care, but they don't have the support [to protect themselves from bullying] that they need."

The Culture of Bullying

When Maria first typed "workplace bullying" into a search engine to better understand what was happening to her, she found the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). WBI defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment through verbal abuse, offensive conduct or behaviors and/or work interference or sabotage. According to WBI, 35 percent of U.S. workers have experienced workplace bullying firsthand – that translates to more than 53 million people. Workplace bullying is 4 times more prevalent than illegal harassment. 

Namie: "It's very costly to keep the jerk because of the ripple effect of harm they cause everyone else."

Gary Namie, Ph.D., co-founder of WBI and author of The Bully-Free Workplace, says bullying victims who contact WBI for help typically feel confused, ashamed and defeated. 

"They need help," he says.  "They need confidence."

But too often, companies strive to meet to the needs or understanding of the bully, not the victim. Namie goes so far as to compare workplace bullying with domestic violence, calling the problem "abuse on the payroll." Just as a domestic violence victim should not be encouraged to "just work it out" with the abuser, workplace bullying victims should not be expected to solve the problem themselves. They need support from the company – support many simply don't receive.

"No matter what advice we give them, [victims] are up against a mountain of resistance," Namie explains.  "The outcomes are unlikely to be positive just for the nature of this [situation]. We tell them how to try and salvage a shred of dignity and integrity so they can leave in the healthiest way possible if they are going to be driven out."

He adds that many employers are in denial that bullying is an issue within the work force, or at the least fail to acknowledge the role corporate culture plays in bullying.

"The big mistake we make in America is we individualize it," he says. "We focus on the bully's personality, the target's personality or both.  We don't look at who is perpetuating this [bullying] over time.  It's in the culture.  It's a heavy lift that we're doing."

It also is costly.  Namie cited turnover costs as a significant consequence of workplace bullying. The best and brightest employees, even in this unstable job market, will reach their limit when bullied. WBI research shows that 77 percent of bullied targets will leave that job – whether because they quit, were terminated or left through a constructive discharge. Workplace bullying also leads to increased workers' compensation and disability costs. 

"It's very costly to keep the jerk because of the ripple effect of harm they cause everyone else," Namie says. "You'd think a bottom-line, fiscal-responsibility argument would be powerful [with employers] but unfortunately, we know loyalty to the bully trumps rational fiduciary responsibility."

Bullying Beyond the Playground

If hearing the word "bullying" initially conjures images of schoolyard cruelty, you're not far off.  As it turns out, schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying aren't so different.

"You think things like this only happen on the playground," Maria says of her bullying experiences. "It's mind-blowing, but there's a lot of this going on in our adult world."

Portelos: "All I really did was expose the bullying...Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

According to WBI, there's a connection between schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying. "Both types share common underlying principles: the desperate grab for control by an insecure, inadequate person [and] the exercise of power through the humiliation of the target,"  WBI's Web site states. "School-age bullies, if reinforced by cheering kids, fearful teachers or ignoring administrators, grow up as dominating type people. If it works for them, there is no reason to change. At work as adults, they do what they do best – bully others."

Francesco Portelos, a New York City teacher who is publicly documenting his experience with employer retaliation at, sees the link between these two types of bullying.

"I definitely have flashbacks," he says about bullying from his school days. "But school bullying often is a physical thing – you can get up and avoid the person. When you're in the workplace, on a bridge or in a cubicle, there's nowhere you can really go. If it's an employer bullying you, they're holding your job above your head.  And keep in mind it's not always possible to pick up and move to another job."

Portelos left his previous career as an environmental engineer when he decided to follow his passion and become a teacher.  In his first 4 years teaching at a middle school in Staten Island, N.Y., his work pleased the administration and students alike.  That all changed when he spoke up during a meeting to ask why teachers and administrators weren't discussing the budget and the Comprehensive Education Plan, as they were meant to. This seemingly innocent question quickly unraveled and led to retaliation because, as Portelos implies, it revealed questionable financial activities within the administration.

"Unbeknownst to me, I was opening Pandora's box," he says.

As Portelos continued to uncover evidence he says points to financial misconduct and educational neglect, he received warnings about his performance as a teacher – despite his previous satisfactory ratings – and faced an increasingly hostile work environment.  The situation escalated until April 26, 2012, when he was removed from his classroom and placed in a "rubber room," a reassignment area for teachers accused of some form of misconduct. 

The rubber room is where Portelos remains today, languishing in an empty room and unable to teach his students, even as no charges have been filed against him. As of this writing, Portelos has not stepped foot in his classroom in 329 days. (Read about Portelos' plight in exacting detail on his Web site, Protect – a URL he stresses he would never choose again now that he knows his situation is not unique and that many others face the same type of bullying and retaliation.)

On his site, Portelos writes: "My intentions were and always will be for the improvement of the school, so I would report more wrongdoing. Call me a whistleblower, a troublemaker or a boat rocker ... It doesn't bother me because we have the education of children at stake here and that supersedes all."

Despite the toll these events have taken on his health (he lost 14 pounds) and his career (he's unable to teach), Portelos would have it no other way than to fight back. He has since filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education and has no plans to stop exposing the retaliation. After all, bullies don't back down on their own.

"All I really did was expose the bullying," he says. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

But Is It Illegal?

Donna Ballman, an attorney and author of Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired, is no stranger to tales of workplace bullying, but she delivers disappointing news to bullied targets: Workplace bullying itself is not illegal in any U.S. state. 

"Bullies have never changed. They are the same on the playground as they are in the workplace," says Ballman. "They focus on the weak and they focus on the different." 

Ballman: "No job is worth your health or your safety."

Depending on the workplace, "different" can apply to a worker who has a disability, who is pregnant, who is older or younger than the rest of the work force or who is of a different sex, religion, race or nationality. Ballman therefore recommends that bullied employees focus on what the bully may be doing that is illegal – such as discriminating based on religion or race, for example.

"If you report general harassment from bullying, you're not protected from retaliation," she explains. "But if you report [something like] racial discrimination, you are legally protected under whistleblower laws or discrimination laws."

Namie stresses that until there's a law in place, many employers will have little incentive to address bullying in the workplace. "Nothing's compelling action, attention or a policy – you need a law," he says. "That's sad, by the way.  We just don't have this large cohort of proactively motivated employers that care about the productivity of employees. We turn a blind eye toward employees being harmed in the trenches."

WBI is pushing for change by working to enact the Healthy Workplaces Bill, which strives to protect both employers and workers from workplace bullying issues by giving employers reason to terminate offenders; filling the gap in current state and federal civil rights protections; providing workers with an avenue for legal redress for health-harming cruelty at work; allowing workers to sue bullies as individuals; protecting conscientious employers from liability risk when internal correction and prevention mechanisms are in effect; and more. Currently, the bill is alive in some form in eight states, according to Namie.

Even without a law in place, workers can and should take action when bullied at work. Ballman urges employees to report any illegal actions, such as discrimination, in writing to the company's human resources department. Unless the report is put in writing, she warns, HR may deny the complaint was ever made. If you're reporting more general bullying that is not considered illegal, remain professional, unemotional, calm and collected in your report, and don't make demands on the employer by asking them to fire the bully. 

Zero Tolerance

Whether or not comprehensive workplace bullying legislation ever is passed, Ballman has an important piece of advice for employers: Develop a zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullying. 

"Even if it's not illegal to bully, if employers don't want it, then don't tolerate it," she says. "Don't let a horrible bully, even if a good producer, escape. Write them up. Tell them if they don't behave in [an appropriate] fashion, they'll get fired."

For the best chance of success, change should come from the top, Namie adds. He sees firsthand what a difference it makes when an executive picks up the phone to ask WBI for help. While a lower-level employee must pursue a long and often difficult campaign to eradicate workplace bullying within the company, an executive who calls WBI – which Namie says is rare – often enacts positive change immediately.

He adds that there's no better time to re-evaluate an organization's culture and put anti-bullying policies in place than when a company gets a new executive team. 

"That's your opportunity," Namie says. "But what CEO comes in thinking of culture? The focus is always on the crisis or profits, not on a blank slate. But anytime a CEO declares, ‘I want to have a positive culture and won't tolerate anyone humiliating anyone else or destroying their livelihood,' you let people operate freely to be creative, innovative, productive and loyal."

"The workplace is becoming increasingly cruel to employees," Ballman adds. "Employers have realized they have a lot of power and most of the laws favor them and employees have fewer rights. If you want to run your workplace like that, fine, but your other employees are looking at you, seeing how you react, and you're going to lose the good employees and [be left with] an abundance of bullies. You're going to have a soap opera instead of work. If you want to have lots of drama with very little getting done, then definitely let workplace bullies thrive."

As for Maria, she has remained with her organization because she hopes to help bring about change and help her employer take a leading role against bullying.

"I want to train staff to recognize what bullying is, to teach them to stand up for themselves,"  she says.  "If you can name it, you can talk about it, and then you can change it."

For tips on how to combat and manage workplace bullying, see "If You're Being Bullied" and "5 Ways Employers Can Promote a Bully-Free Workplace."

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