There are many myths and misconceptions about workplace bullying floating around out there. Excerpted from our book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, below are the top three myths debunked.
#1: There is no such thing as “workplace bullying”
When we think about “bullying,” most of us think about the schoolyard and not about the workplace. However, workplace bullying is very real, and its destructive effects are also very real.
Heinz Leymann, a social scientist from Sweden, was the first to document abusive behaviors in adults at work. He and a colleague, Bo-Göran Gustavsson, published the first ever article on psychological violence at work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in 1984. Since then, Leymann has published several research articles on the topic, the most popular of which was his first paper in English, published in another scientific journal called Violence and Victims in 1990. Leymann is credited as the forefather of research on workplace bullying, and was the first to notice that it can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even in suicide. Since the publication of his articles, thousands of research studies on aggressive and bullying behaviors at work have been conducted around the world—documenting how widespread, common, and damaging they are.
Should anyone try to tell you that you are not being bullied because, in their mind, that’s not something that happens to adults at work, tell them that 20+ years of research on workplace bullying says otherwise. Some research has indicated that 50% of the population is bullied, and in some cases even as much as 75%!
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), found in their study that almost 25% of American businesses have some level of bullying happening in their workplace. This study also found that 11% of the bullying incidents were committed against customers.
CareerBuilder.com, a major job search engine, found in their recent survey of over 5,600 people that one in four people is bullied at work.
The Workplace Bullying Institute, who conducted a study with Zogby International in 2007 and again in 2010, found that 35% of the American workforce is bullied, and an additional 15% have witnessed bullying against a co-worker in the past. That means, according to their studies, 50% of the workforce has been exposed to workplace bullying. Their studies also found that bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal forms of discrimination or harassment (bullying is not illegal, by the way).
The Employment Law Alliance, a group of 3,000 attorneys from around the world, found in their survey that nearly 45% of American workers have been bullied during their careers.
Finally, in the Corporate Leavers Survey, a survey conducted by an organization called the Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on fairness in the workplace, 74% of respondents indicated they had been bullied at a former employer’s, and 71% indicated they had also been publicly humiliated.
All of these numbers point to one thing: bullying at work is real and widespread.
#2: Bullying is no big deal
Independent research in the United States and from around the world has associated bullying with many psychological health problems, including feeling helpless, decreased self-esteem, poor morale, feelings of inadequacy, depression, and development of conflict with co-workers and family members as a result of what’s happening at work.
In Leymann’s 1990 article, for example, he identified several effects of bullying, including feelings of isolation, desperation, helplessness, rage, anxiety, despair, hyperactivity, and immune system deficiencies. He also estimated in the article that between 100 and 300 people commit suicide each year (in Sweden) as a result of the abuse they experience at work.
Suicides related to bullying at work do not seem to be very prevalent in the media in the United States, but documentarian Beverly Peterson has looked into this issue through the lens of her camera.
US researchers Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts found targets likened bullying to being beaten, physically abused, “assassinated,” “maimed,” “killed,” “annihilated,” and “raped.”
The long-term impact of bullying has also been studied by researchers Matthiesen and Einarsen, who found Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in nearly 77% of their research participants who were bullied (2004). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is commonly known as PTSD and is a psychological trauma resulting in sleepless nights and severe anxiety, to name only a few of the symptoms. PTSD is also commonly associated with soldiers who return from war.
All of this points to one thing: bullying is a big deal, and it hurts.
If you are thinking about suicide, help is available to you. Work is not worth your life. National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, 24-hour hotline available no matter where you live in the United States. See their website at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
#3: Bullying is just a personality conflict between two people
A personality conflict occurs when two people disagree on how to handle an unhappy client or what new office furniture to buy; it affects primarily—and at times exclusively—those two individuals. Bullying, on the other hand, affects the employees, co-workers, the workplace, and its leaders.
Bullying is a systemic problem that the entire organization is responsible for allowing to develop, and thus responsible for eliminating. For one, when bystanders witness an incident of workplace bullying, the chances of them standing up for the target are slim. They might also experience psychological fear themselves, asking, “Will I be next?!”
Managers are the ones whose primary responsibility should be to help targets, and for creating an environment where disrespect is not allowed. Unfortunately, most of the time managers do nothing to help—or they are the ones bullying employees—hence targets and bystanders lose respect for them and this drives down quality of work. To create a healthy work environment, managers need the direction and support of the organization’s top leaders.
In one author’s case, despite the crying, begging, and pleading of employees to the company president that he address bullying behaviors in one particular individual—who was causing major turnover, bottlenecking of information, and upset employees and even customers—the president would not lift a finger. The answer was always, “That’s just how he is,” “Just let Nick be Nick,” or “Why can’t you be the bigger person and just let it go?” The company president never spoke to, Nick, the manager who mistreated everyone else in the office.
By failing to respond to a workplace bullying situation, the company president condoned bullying behavior and created a reputation for being tolerant of bullying. Many employees left the organization as a result of the challenging workplace relationships. Other employees chose a different route and became abusive themselves because they’d learned it was okay, and perhaps even expected to behave like a jerk. Hey, if this guy did it and got away with it why shouldn’t they?