Workplace Bullying Has Become a Quiet Epidemic Nationally

Emotional Abuse and Workplace Violence Can Result in Sustained Emotional and Psychological Scars

A national survey conducted recently by The Workplace Bullying Institute revealed that 35% of the U.S. workforce have experienced workplace bullies at some time in their career while 15% report witnessing employees being emotionally abused. (When extrapolated out that is the total of approximately 54 million employees which is the population of Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, and Utah combined.) Anything that affects 35% of the public has to be classified an epidemic…but it’s a silent epidemic. In a survey conducted by The Employment Alliance the results revealed that 82% of those bullied victims ultimately lost their jobs and of that number 84% of the victims were women. Perhaps the most shocking and discouraging finding from the survey was the fact that only 7% of the bullies were reprimanded or fired.

Robert Sutton, PhD of Organizational Psychology at Stanford University presented a comprehensive description that stipulates what behaviors and actions must be exhibited by an employee in the workplace to be considered a bully. Dr. Sutton defined bullying as, “The repeated less favorable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behavior that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates a worker, possibly in front of co-workers, clients or customers.”

Perhaps the most devastating impact that can occur from the unrelenting emotional abuse on a target employee is the psychological scars can last for months, and sometimes years after the bullying situation is no longer in place.

One of the first questions that targets ask themselves is “why me?” The most common answer to that question is that the employee poses a “threat” in some way to the bully but the perception of that threat to the bully is entirely in his/her mind based on what he/she interprets or believes. Surveys and polls over the recent years have been able to reveal commonalities on employees who were ultimately singled out as targets for the bully’s venom:

  1. Most targets tend to be independent and refuse to be subservient. When the victims take steps to preserve their dignity, bullies will escalate their campaigns of hatred and intimidation in an attempt to gain control of the victim’s work.
  2. The victims are inclined to be technically more skilled than their bullies. They are the “go-to” veteran employees to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses can’t stand to share credit for the recognition of talent.
  3. The victim tends to be better liked among his/her peers, have more empathy, and colleagues tend to appreciate the warmth the victim brings to the workplace.
  4. The victim is inclined to be ethical and honest and have a sincere desire to help, teach, and develop others.
  5. And finally, victims are usually non-confrontational and deal with aggression in a non-aggressive manner.

There are as many as 10 to 12 different types of bullies in the workplace. It’s important to remember that a workplace bully is not likely to fit neatly into any category. His/her behavior patterns that are consistently brought to bear on the victim is what really defines the type of bully a victim has fallen prey. Of the 10+ types of bullies that exist in the workplace Mr. Watkins has singled out a couple that tend to be the most common. The first is the Intellectual Bully, described as “A guru wannabe.” He is motivated by the need for recognition and wants to be viewed by peers and subordinates as “the go-to person” no matter what the question. His objective as a bully is to instill a sense of stupidity and incompetence in his people by using words and a condescending attitude as his/her instruments of abuse and intellectual superiority. The intellectual bully stifles any employee initiative or creativity in his effort to maintain his sense of control. An example: approximately 2 years after the organization went through a restructuring process in which the intellectual bully was transferred into another division of the organization, he was stripped of all authority of his previous position and his successor had previous been one of his subordinates. Even though he was stripped of his authority over peers who worked with him previously he continued to try and force his influence over the previous department. Even after almost a year his successor was struggling with the havoc that he created in the department. Even after a year since taking over the responsibilities of the position the successor would wake up at nights in a panic thinking that she had to go to work in the morning to face her previous boss. In talking with previous peers they complained of emotional symptoms that were manifested as a feeling of “knots in their stomach”, tension headaches, and an overall sense of anxiety even after 10 months when they received, but ignored, phone calls from the bully as they transferred his calls into voice mail. Eventually the victims were met with a barrage of angry, derogatory, and demeaning remarks upon finally returning his calls.

“A number of us joke around as we discuss our latent emotional reactions to the previous department head bully that it almost seems like we are suffering from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”, explains the new Chief of Staff. “It helps to provide a sense of comradery knowing that I’m not alone when experiencing these emotional reactions as we rebuild the department,” reported one employee.

The second most prominent bully in the workplace is typically called by a number of different descriptive names. Those names are derived from his/her manipulating tactics which are very similar. Some label them as “tyrants”, “serial bullies”, and even “sociopaths”. This type of bully tends to refer to as “a screamer”. They are prone to hound their victims without mercy. They are motivated by acquiring power and control within the organization, not necessarily within just one department or section. Their primary objective is to instill a sense of fear (which they interpret as respect) and control over their employees. They are described as emotionally volatile, unpredictable, vindictive, a screamer of obscenities, and are not above throwing anything that is within reach. They are often very intelligent, charming, and even charismatic with powerful verbal skills of persuasion, but even with their verbal skills they have the emotional temperament of a 5 year old throwing a temper tantrum. They seem to gravitate to positions of authority and power and are able to attain executive levels of management. Their charming and charismatic demeanor in comparison to demeaning attitude is evident in what can be considered as “sucking-up and slamming down” manner where he/she will suck-up to powers of authority (i.e. Board of Directors”) while hounding subordinates without remorse or empathy. The screaming bully will tend to surround himself with lackeys who are ‘yes people’ that he/she has promoted or perhaps brought with him from his/her previous position. It is the lackeys that he sometimes will depend upon to engage the venomous attacks against his/her victims. I was asked to work with a new CEO of a client organization. Shortly after the CEO’s arrival he announced to the employees that it was “his organization” and they could expect some sweeping changes in the organization’s policies and procedures in a number of departments with little or no explanations as to what that entailed. After the first several months he yelled at the department heads during a staff meeting, “Are you on my team or not, make up your minds?” He could be heard screaming throughout the entire floor at his subordinates for not making changes happen fast enough. A major layoff followed as the first course of action. Employees’ reactions were predictable. Many supervisors expressed a heightened sense of anxiety as to their future with the organization. There existed a feeling of hyperawareness as to whether the screaming bully was looking for excuses to increase the terminations of department heads. This state of uncertainty continued for two years before the bully’s exit to another organization. During that two year period employees at all levels complained of severe tension headaches, reports of increased absenteeism for doctors’ appointments due to high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and other stress related symptoms as reactions to the uncertainty of the organization under the bully’s direction.

At the onset of working with victims of bullies it is extremely important to emphasize that when the person begins to feel they are being targeted by a bully for them not to take it personally! It’s not the victim’s problem but the problem of the bully’s in the way they perceive the victim as a threat in their eyes. Make it a practice never to share personal information or try to befriend a bully…they won’t stand for it.

About Ron Watkins:
Ron Watkins,President of Mountain Sky Consulting has degrees in Clinical Psychology  and Behavioral Psychology.  His 25 years as a management consultant has provided him with the insight and experience with addressing the behavioral problems related to Workplace Bullying.  He can be contracted at 828-508-9140 or ron@mskyconsult.com in Asheville, NC.




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