Bullies at workplace

The tragic story of Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after experiencing relentless bullying from her high school classmates in South Hadley, Mass., has captured international media attention. Nine students have now been indicted, but it seems as though it wasn’t until all the media scrutiny began that the bullies suffered any consequences.

By Cheryl Dolan

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Published: Sun 25 Apr 2010, 9:29 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:41 AM

While many peers and teachers knew what was happening, only a few people, including Phoebe’s mother, reported this behaviour to school authorities. And nothing was done until it was too late.

In a similar situation in 2008, 31-year-old Jodie Zebell from Wisconsin committed suicide after enduring months of workplace bullying from her peers and supervisor. Recently, the Wisconsin legislature listened to her story and others like it as the Healthy Workplace Bill was introduced. In their book “The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job,” Gary and Ruth Namie describe how bullies thrive on secrecy, shame and others’ silence.

The authors’ Labour Day 2008 Survey (of which 95 per cent of the 400 respondents had been targets of bullying) revealed that 95 per cent of the target’s co-workers of any rank — peers or managers — witnessed such mistreatment at least once. Yet 53 per cent of the employers did nothing to stop the mistreatment when it was reported. In fact, in 71 per cent of the cases, employers actually retaliated against the person who reported being bullied. The authors provide many reasons for “witness paralysis” including groupthink, rationalisation, a natural aversion to risk and placing blame on the victim.

Bullies are hugely expensive for corporations in terms of lost dollars, productivity, employee retention and wellness. The research strongly suggests that organisations will only take this issue seriously, particularly in competitive environments where bullying behaviour is implicitly rewarded, if it affects their bottom line. It will be immensely more expensive once the Healthy Workplace Bill — which has now been introduced into 17 states — is actually passed.

Bullying can’t survive in workplaces that don’t tolerate it. Intervention by management is a powerful weapon to reducing bullying since most targets can’t win alone and most bullies will never stop otherwise. Bullying is a complex problem, and intervention often carries consequences. But in some situations, it’s worth the personal and professional risk.

George, a regional manager at a technology company, and his entire team met with corporate for the annual review. (names have been changed.) This was George’s third review. They were always tough yet civil, but Dan, the most senior corporate manager, had a reputation for being a bully. When Bob, a problematic local manager, stepped up, Dan began to aggressively tear into Bob in front of his peers and subordinates.

The behaviour was startling and abusive. Seeing that this public humiliation had quickly put the whole team on edge, George had a dilemma: How could he at once stop the destructive energy in the room, avoid becoming the next target and not lose his job? George called a timeout. Leading Dan out of the room, he told him his approach was inappropriate and destructive to both Bob and the rest of the team. Dan, unhappy that a subordinate had called him out for his behavior, fought back. But George held his ground, telling Dan that he was embarrassing himself and the corporate management team, and that he was hurting the opportunity for a valuable corporate contribution and quite possibly next quarter’s results.

Dan backed off, and the tone of the meeting shifted. In the following weeks, Dan allowed George to take a more active role in managing Bob. The next quarter’s results were great for the team, and the following annual reviews were much more positive. What worked?

1. George quickly assessed the impact of the bullying behaviour from an organisational perspective. The moment before calling a timeout, he feared that if he handled the situation badly he could lose the respect of his team and possibly even his job. But he told himself, “If I lose my job, I will find something else. This abuse must stop.”

2. He made a choice to intervene: “I just think there are times when it’s important to do what you can live with and that is more important than the risk or consequences. I realised I would not be able to look in the eyes of the people who worked for me if I didn’t at least say something, whether or not it changed anything.”

3. He interrupted immediately. The longer bullying goes on, the harder it is to stop.

4. He addressed the bully personally and in private. Bullies hate public humiliation.

5. He appealed to the bully’s self-interest. It was quickly clear that Bob and the rest of the team’s feelings didn’t matter to Dan — but when George framed the issue in terms of personal embarrassment and corporate results, Dan was motivated to change.

You do have a choice, even in these times of workplace stress. The next time you’re tempted to remain a silent witness, remember that in stepping up to save a co-worker, you might even save a life.

Cheryl Dolan is a speech/language pathologist and executive coach in leadership presence, communication, creativity and change theory

© The New York Times Syndicate

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