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What Is Workplace Bullying?

Understanding the dynamics of workplace bullying

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Updated May 03, 2014

What Is Workplace Bullying?
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Workplace bullying, like school bullying, occurs when one person or a group of people intentionally inflict pain or harm another employee. The effects of workplace bullying are vast and far-reaching and jeopardize the target’s health and career. What’s more, the Workplace Bullying Institute reports that the majority of bosses are bullies, which means many bullied employees suffer in silence.

Workplace bullying can include such tactics as verbal bullying, physical bullying, relational aggression, cyberbullying, sexual bullying and sexual harassment, and prejudicial bullying. But unlike school bullying, workplace bullies and office mean girls operate within the established rules and policies of their organization in both overt and covert ways.

For instance, the bullying may be couched in humiliating coaching practices or implemented as part of programs touted as being in the best interest of the employee. Or it can involve more overt bullying like berating, publicly humiliating and ostracizing another person. Either way, workplace bullies are usually skilled social manipulators who get ahead at work by bullying others.

Sometimes, workplace bullies can be so adept at disguising their behavior that the intended target can’t even spot workplace bullying. Instead, they internalize the behavior and believe there is something defective in them.

Why do employees bully one another?

While there are a variety of reasons why bullies choose to target other people, usually their behavior is driven by the bully’s need to control the targeted individual. These employees want to call all the shots. So they often insist on having things their way and if others don’t comply they are targeted. Usually, these bullies have strong social skills and a lot of influence within the company. As a result, they use these attributes to dominate other people.

Other workplace bullies may target their co-workers out of envy. They may feel threatened by the target’s strengths or accomplishments or insecure about their own abilities.

Sometimes workplace bullies have poor impulse control. These employees are quick-tempered, may scream a lot and sometimes even use profanity. These bullies are prone to hurling direct insults and negative comments. They also may dominate meetings with critical comments and sarcasm.

What are the components of workplace bullying?

Most bullying experts agree that what sets bullying apart from mean behavior is that bullies intend to harm their targets. There’s also an imbalance of power and the bullying acts are repeated. In other words, bullying is not a one-time incident. Instead, it is systematic and ongoing until someone intervenes, the target leaves or the bully is fired.

Power imbalance. When there is an imbalance of power, it is hard for the target to defend himself against the bully’s attacks. Sometimes there is a perceived power imbalance and other times, the bully is the target’s boss or supervisor. Perceived power imbalances are harder to distinguish but examples can include having more social standing at work, having a sharper tongue or having more influence within the company. The consequences are that the target will feel isolated, weak, oppressed, threatened and vulnerable.

Repetitive actions. Most of the time, bullying does not consist of a single mean act or word. Instead, it is usually ongoing and systematic. In other words, workplace bullies have zeroed in on the target and lash out multiple times. Sometimes the bullying will consist of the same act over and over again such as name-calling or berating. Other times, it will consist of a variety of actions such as taking credit for the targets’ work, leaving them out of important meetings, sending rude e-mails and spreading office gossip. The point is, that people can be rude and say inappropriate things, but if it is a one-time incident, it doesn’t constitute bullying. The hallmark of workplace bullying is that the torment is consistent.

Intentional actions. Another aspect of workplace bullying is the intention of the bully to harm, to control or to manipulate the target. Bullies deliberately target other people undermining their self-esteem and their work. There is nothing accidental about their behavior. And the consequences are significant. Targets of workplace bullying can feel humiliated, ashamed, upset, anxious and depressed. Some may even develop eating disorders, anxiety issues or post-traumatic stress disorder. And a few even contemplate suicide.

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