Many people are being introduced to the concept of workplace bullies this week, as more information is being revealed about an NFL player who claims he was bullied by another player, who not only was verbally abusive in person, but sent him harassing, racist and abusive texts and left him demeaning voicemails.
While much of the non-physical workplace bullying that goes on in U.S. workplaces technically is legal, the repetitive, cumulative exposure to workplace bullying is stressful and physically unhealthy not only for the employees being bullied but also demoralizing for their coworkers who witness it.
Dr. Gary Namie calls workplace bullying “the silent employee health hazard” and notes that no one just “snaps.” Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, said the victims of workplace bullying often are told, "It was so insignificant, what happened to you."
"But it is the repetitive nature and the cumulative exposure” to the abuse, he noted during a session at the America’s Safest Companies Conference. “Yeah, it was insignificant, but it was FOUR YEARS RUNNING! It’s a steady drip-drip-drip of ‘You are nothing, your opinions mean nothing.’”
People often wonder why those who are bullied don’t leave, said Namie. For 40 percent of them, the reason is economic; they need the job. Thirty-six percent say that it’s a matter of pride and a sense that if they leave then the bully “wins.” Some 24 percent are waiting for someone else to step in and end the bullying.
Namie said that bullying for adults still is stuck in the denial phase. Evidence of that is the disbelief (and some laughter) with which people are responding to reports that Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito harassed and bullied fellow lineman Jonathan Martin to the point where Martin left the team. Martin didn’t tell his coaches or team owners why he left because he worried about retribution and damage to his career. A week after he left the team, Martin’s agent revealed that his client was bullied and some experts have indicated that other players probably will come forward with similar stories. Often, bullied workers are not perceived as the victims, but as troublemakers, said Namie.
“Bullies survive because they have executive sponsors above them” like bosses or coaches, said Namie. “They say, ‘He’s a great guy. So maybe he’s a jerk, but he’s my jerk.’” Until that employee steps so far out of line that bullying no longer can be ignored, employers and managers (and coaches) often turn a blind eye and continue the status quo.
For example in Miami, the Miami Dolphins organization was forced to take action once it was alerted to the bullying, which went on for a significant amount of time. The team suspended Incognito indefinitely and released a statement that said, in part, “We believe in maintaining a culture of respect for one another and as a result, we believe this decision is in the best interest of the organization at this time. As we noted earlier, we reached out to the NFL to conduct an objective and thorough review. We will continue to work with the league on this matter.”
In nearly 80 percent of all cases, the bullying stops because the bullied person quits or is fired. Only in 20 percent or so of the cases does the employer reassign the bully, fire him or her or constrain the bully so that he or she is forced to stop.
When bullying goes unchecked, several things can happen: the bullied person quits, causing the expense of hiring and training a new person; the bullied person remains in his or her position but is miserable, stressed out, physically ill and potentially less productive; or the situation escalates to violence, either by the bully or the bullied.
Namie said that when he hears about an act of workplace violence, he checks who the targets were. It is one thing if it’s a general “shoot ‘em up” situation, he said, but it’s another thing if the attacker selects certain victims while allowing others to live. “[If the] HR manager, supervisor, union rep [are targeted]… That person [the shooter] probably was bullied,” said Namie.
What Employers Should Do
“Many employer actions can mitigate the health-harming effects of abusive conduct, if only employers were willing to act,” said Namie.
According to him, employers have dealt with illegal forms of discriminatory misconduct for decades to comply with federal and state laws. The protocol they follow to comply with those laws is what needs to be done to address workplace bullying, even though only about 20 percent of workplace bullying potentially is illegal (physically violent or actionable through workplace discrimination laws). Here are the components of an ideal comprehensive approach, according to Namie:
- Assess pre-initiative prevalence to create a baseline.
- Create a specific anti-bullying policy.
- Devise informal and formal enforcement procedures.
- Train an internal expert peer team to specifically support bullied employees and provide informal resolution.
- Educate all executives, managers and staff, “because bullying impacts all employees at all levels.”
- Incorporate measures into evaluation and hiring processes.
- Measure, adjust, measure, re-train and measure again.
And if a person is bullied and there is no help offered by supervisors or company management, “Just quit,” said Namie. “Leave!”
The impact of bullying on health is not worth the paycheck, he noted. Here are some of the stress-related physical health and psychological consequences of bullying:
- Cardiovascular problems – hypertension (60 percent), coronary heart disease, strokes or death.
- Gastrointestinal issues.
- Neurological structural changes, altered capacity.
- Accelerated aging from telomere shortening that interferes with DNA replication.
- Debilitating anxiety (80 percent) and panic attacks (52 percent).
- Clinical depression (49 percent).
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (30 percent).
“Witnesses are as depressed as the people who are victims,” said Namie. “Employers need to quit throwing money away (protecting bullies) because they are so resistant to change” and so damaging to the organization.
“Bullies are organizational terrorists,” said Namie. “Bullies bully because they can. Don’t let them.”