Workplace bullying is not a topic often explored by enterprise security professionals. However, this will likely change in the coming years, given the scope and the immensity of the problem.
How do we define workplace bullying? The Workplace Bullying Institute defines it as repeated, health harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating or intimidating; constitutes work interference or sabotage; and can be physical or verbal.
An additional definition includes: “Workplace bullying is repeatedly attacking someone verbally or physically with the intent of causing hurt, humiliation, belittlement, isolation and discrimination.”
Sexual harassment, in addition to racial, gender, disability and age discrimination are also forms of workplace bullying. The bully can be an employer, peer, subordinate or even client or a supplier.
Workplace bullying is driven by the perpetrators’ need to control the targeted individual(s), and it is initiated by bullies who choose their targets, timing, location and methods. It can be acts of commission (doing things to others) or omission (withholding resources or information from others). Workplace bullying can escalate to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion, and it undermines legitimate business interests when the bully’s personal agenda takes precedence over his or her work (and the work of their victim). Altogether, workplace bullying is akin to domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll.
The typical bully uses aggression and violence to compensate for overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. Some bullies suffer from mental health disorders (i.e., narcissistic, paranoid and antisocial personality disorders).
Most bullies lack self-discipline, the ability to pursue long-terms goals or to work in a team. According to the United Kingdom (UK) National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, bullies feel entitled to special treatment, seek attention, lack empathy, are full of rage and envy. Bullies are consummate liars, and they exploit and then discard their co-workers. In other words, bullies are emotionally immature and exploitative control freaks.
Bullying is a traumatic, stressful experience that often results in the mental breakdown and otherwise ill-health of the victims. Physical and mental health problems, fatigue, low functioning and suicide are common. The victims can no longer be productive at work and are sometimes forced to resign, even as the bully is rewarded and promoted.
Surveys in the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and the U.S. indicate that physical violence in the workplace is rare, but one in five workers is exposed to verbal and emotional abuse. The direct and indirect costs – in healthcare: increased workloads, stunted creativity, staff turnover, reduced productivity, absenteeism and corporate dysfunction – may amount to $40 billion in the UK and $200 billion in the United States.
Only few countries, such as Sweden and the United Kingdom, have specific laws that tackle workplace violence, abuse and bullying.
Workers and employers lack education on how to recognize abuse, curb it and effectively cope with its aftermath.
Workplace Bullying Prevalence
An estimated 37 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 54 million Americans, report being bullied at work, and an additional 12 percent witness it. This totals 40 percent of workers. This is a “silent epidemic,” as 40 percent never report it.
But bullying can have personal side effects, such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression and PTSD.
In addition, a targeted victim has a 64 percent chance of losing their job for no reason, as 72 percent of workplace bullies are in supervisory roles.
How to Mitigate Bullying
Teach your staff that bullying is bad for business. Workplace bullying will cause:
High turnover, which is expensive for companies as they invest in hiring a new employee only to lose them shortly thereafter, possibly to a competitor;
Low productivity, since employees are not motivated to do their best and often out sick due to stress-related illnesses;
Lost innovations, since the bully is more interested in attacking people advancing the company, and the victims become less likely to generate other ideas; and
Difficulty hiring quality employees as word spreads that the company has problems in the work environment.
From the outset, the 10 common mistakes that may foster or enable workplace bullying are:
Accepting it as part of the enterprise’s culture.
Minimizing the problem.
Not encouraging reporting.
Not documenting events.
Neglecting to educate staff about the problem.
Not engaging a bully.
Not following up with the victim.
Not involving Human Resources.
Allowing situations to fester.
A key point for security executives is that workplace bullies don’t just pick and single out the “odd duck” and loner in the crowd. They will target outstanding staff with strong interpersonal skills – in many cases those who are well liked and respected. Remember: one motivation for workplace bullying is jealousy. Security executives should also divorce themselves from any mindset that workplace bullying is just a matter of cultural sensitivity that never affects production. That belief is fiction. Consider and stress to your team that between 10 percent to 52 percent of a bullied employee’s work time is spent defending themselves, networking, stressed, becoming de-motivated and coping with their bullied existence. These are realities that impact the bottom line.
Teach your team the six signs that a workplace is “toxic.” They include widespread anger or frustration among the staff; the bully is admired while victims are belittled; work progress is dysfunctional; staff can identify dysfunctional relationships; there is obvious hypocrisy in the company; or there are cold-hearted ways established and used to control people.
Security officers need to learn the many forms workplace bullying takes. This includes: verbal abuse or swearing; staff being singled out or excluded; actions are taken that humiliate staff members; or “practical jokes” being repeated time and again.
Officers need to report their observations immediately and intervene as needed to support the victims of workplace bullying. Security staff should also familiarize themselves with the negative impacts staff feel when bullied, including stress, absenteeism or low productivity, lowered self-esteem or depression, anxiety, digestive upsets, high blood pressure, insomnia, trouble with relationships due to stress over work, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is why security staff needs to be trained and attuned and actively invested in both preventing and identifying workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying is not always the world of a lone actor, either. In a “mobbing” situation, co-workers, subordinates or superiors can gang up on someone to force them out of the workplace through rumor, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, discrediting and isolation. This emotional abuse in the workplace can be malicious, nonsexual, nonracial or general harassment, but it’s essentially psychological terror or aggression.
In many cases security staff may be the company’s best bet to address “mobbing” and sanctioned group bullying.
So what strategies can your security team take to offset a bully or mob?
Break up cliques – they can lead to “mobbing.”
Do not tolerate scapegoating.
Be aware of biases.
Prevent gossip – showcase professional behavior.
Investigate bullying reports immediately.
Create a strong, well-known reporting process.
Provide ongoing mentor support for bullied staff.
If the bully is a supervisor, go higher in the organization.
Terminate the bully if nothing changes.
When investigating workplace bullying, be sure to capture the names of those involved, the times and places, any witnesses, an incident summary (including quotes) and contact information.
There is one golden rule regarding workplace bullying that managers need to pursue and promote: have a policy on workplace bullying. If the word “bullying” is not in the policy, then you have no policy.
To help emphasize the scope and importance of the problem, advise your staff collectively that there is a link between workplace bullying and self-injurious behavior – suicide. Left unchecked, workplace bullying will have a damming impact on the workplace and the staff caught up in the poisonous culture that bullying promotes.