Stopping Bullies at Work

Studies find bullying is alive and well in the workplace. Learn strategies for coping.

By Mathew Schwartz | May 2008

Say "bully," and people think of school days, and the big kid on the
bus who demanded everyone’s milk money or, nowadays, their iPod.

But if you think bullying is unique to the pre-teen and teen-age years,
think again. Researchers find bullies are alive and well in the
workplace. Indeed, a 2007 survey found 13 percent of more than 7,000
adults had seen some form of bullying in the workplace over the
previous 12 months. Another 24 percent had seen it at some earlier
point in their career. Specific examples included stolen lunch money
(sound familiar?), firing without cause, identify theft, planting
illegal drugs in a co-worker’s vehicle and, in two cases, arson.

Technically, the Zogby International survey defined workplace bullying
as sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal
abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, or humiliation. Is the
workplace really so dog-eat-dog?

Dr. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Wash., and co-author of The Bully at Work,
recommends not confusing tough love with being a jerk. "A tough manager
is tough on everyone, but there’s a fairness and consistency to it, and
when the product is done and out in the market, there’s a celebration
together," he explains. By contrast, "bullying is a systematic,
laser-focused campaign of interpersonal destruction."

Bullies might argue otherwise. "Bullies are always claiming to be
misunderstood," Namie says. "From their perspective, the target always
makes them do it. ‘You provoked me.’ You know the mantra of personal
responsibility? Well, they’re never responsible for their own actions."

The Bully Pulpit

Just who bullies whom? In terms of gender, Zogby found male bullies
dish it out almost equally between the sexes, while female bullies are
2.5 times more likely to target other women. However, bullies are
overwhelmingly managers. "To be a petty tyrant, you have to be a boss
with title power, to make good on the threats," notes Namie.

One bright spot: Bullying may be relatively less common in the
technology industry, which needs to retain scarce talent, especially
because younger workers typically lack Boomer-era notions of stability
and life employment. In other words, they aren’t afraid to walk.
Observes Namie: "This really compels employers to treat these people as
a valuable resource, as opposed to interchangeable cogs."

Does Incivility Take Two?

"There’s never been, in the history of the world, any society in which
everybody was always happy in their workplace," notes Izzy Kalman, a
psychotherapist who specializes in bullying and anger management.
Accordingly, he recommends trying to avoid falling victim to bullying
by defusing bad behavior with nice, and pursuing techniques "for turning an enemy into a friend."

For example, avoid attacking others or defending yourself: It shows you
fear the other person. Show pain (which makes the other person feel
sorry), not anger (which begets more anger). Rather than immediately
complaining to management, first try to deal with perceived problems
directly, which can help you build mutual respect.

One frequent workplace problem Kalman sees is miscommunication. For
example, employees think their boss is demanding perfection, when the
boss is really demanding respect. In other words, for both parties it’s
often not what you say, but how you say it.

When to Fight Back

Of course, some managers really are abusive, operating "just below
physical battery, but above incivility, in terms of its impact on
people," says Namie. In such situations, he recommends workers take
three steps: label it bullying, take time off to attend to your
physical and mental health, and build a business case against the
bully. In the last step, detail in financial terms the detrimental
effects of the bullying – such as missed deadlines, turnover, and lost
revenues – and present this to the most senior manager possible.

Knowing you’re being bullied doesn’t come easily. Our natural
inclination is to trust people. "All targets are at first an apologist
for the bully," says Namie, who sees tech workers as being especially
susceptible. "The more you have your nose to the grindstone, the more
easily you miss it," he says. You also miss the accompanying
environmental cues, such as the horrified or apologetic reactions of

Be Prepared to Walk

Unfortunately, bullying complaints don’t tend to resolve in the
employee’s favor. According to Zogby, in just one-third of cases
companies do provide help. However, almost half of the time companies
either do nothing, or make the problem worse. Bullying situations
resolve only when the bullied employee leaves (40 percent), transfers
(13 percent), or is terminated (24 percent).

Despite those odds, don’t stay quiet and don’t blame yourself, says
Namie. Both your emotional health and your career are at stake. "People
need to do the fight-back for their emotional health, and if the
employer won’t make you safe, you don’t need that job," he says.