Employee’s Guide

This section is designed to help employees (and their families and friends) familiarize themselves with the various forms that workplace bullying commonly takes, and to assess their own situation. It also suggests concrete steps that a target can take to address their situation.

A Field Guide to Workplace Bullying: How to Spot It, and What to Do About It.

Bullying in the Workplace with Marilyn Noble. Recorded live on September 6th, 2007 at the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women Lunch & Learn Series, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada (some segments are in both French and English)

Bystander Intervention Training

There is increasing awareness of the prevalence of workplace and academic bullying.  There is no room for either in a positive workplace environment.  Institutional change takes time but, we, as individuals may still act.  Despite the increased awareness and decreased tolerance for bullying, many of us are caught short when witnessing occurrences of bullying and sometimes stay silent or walk away not knowing what to say or do.  Please watch this one hour webinar to learn practical skills and phrases.  These skills can be used when witnessing discrimination based on gender, race or ability as well.


The Tip of the Iceberg: What We Know So Far About Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying encompasses behaviors (words, gestures, images, actions, and failure to act) which, over time, humiliate or terrorize an employee, undermine his or her credibility and effectiveness, and contribute to a disrespectful or hostile work environment.

Where The Story Begins

In May and June, 2004, a University of New Brunswick research team on workplace violence and abuse, having first probed their own stories of difficult workplace relationships, undertook a series of focus groups with New Brunswick residents who had self-identified as having experienced psychological harassment in their workplaces.

From the outset, a number of astonishing developments took place.

The team had chosen the focus group approach in the belief that it would help to counter the isolation which often characterizes psychological harassment. They believed that bringing survivors of workplace bullying together to share their experiences would help to provide affirmation and mutual support and stimulate collaborative problem solving. While this did occur, other potential participants shied away, feeling that being part of a group discussion was too much like going public with what had happened to them. This was particularly true of predominantly blue-collar communities with a small handful of major employers. Here the risk of disclosure was just too high. Further, as someone from one of these communities remarked, It’s so much part of the industrial culture that bullying behavior probably isn’t even questioned. For many people in these settings, that’s just the way things are.

Meanwhile, in Fredericton, where the workforce is predominantly comprised of civil servants and university, health care, and knowledge industry workers, enough participants were clamoring to talk that a second focus group had to be added.

The biggest surprise of all was the immediate and intense media interest in this investigation. It was, to quote the community co-chair of the committee, Marilyn Noble, as though we had dropped a lit match in very dry forest. Over the next five months, she would field newspaper, radio, and television interviews from all across Canada and the United States. The appetite to learn about this issue seemed to be insatiable. Clearly the topic itself had hit a nerve.

Recognizing The Signs

So what did people identify as the telltale signs that bullying is happening in a workplace? The first thing people do when they get to work in the morning is to check on what sort of a mood the bully is in today,the researchers were told. And if that person isn’t there, there’s a perceptible change in the atmosphere. It’s decidedly lighter. Tension, stress, and guardedness often characterize the workplace that is harboring a bully. Employees aren’t free to be themselves, and are constantly watching their backs. They don’t laugh unless the bully does, and they censor their comments, knowing that neither criticism nor alternative strategies will be welcomed. Some say that they withhold their best ideas: why would they bother contributing to a negative work team, or running the risk of sharing their creativity? Decision making patterns and reward systems are often unfairly skewed. There may even be collusion to cover up or minimize the bully’s behavior and its impact. Somehow, many find it easier to deny or bury the bullying than to confront it. Targets of bullying may even be made to feel that it’s their own fault – that somehow they are the problem, and deserve the treatment they are getting.

Bullying Begins With Uncivil Behavior

Bullying covers a broad spectrum of rude, hurtful, and destructive behaviors.

Sometimes the initial mistreatment is so subtle and insidious that it’s difficult to detect. At first it may happen in private, without witnesses. The target may convince herself that it is her imagination, that she is being overly sensitive, or that it is somehow warranted. He may feel reluctant or unable to address the behavior himself, and may feel very awkward about disclosing it to others. If the bullying becomes more public and if bystanders don’t react in any way, that normalizes the behavior, making it harder to characterize as out of line.

Verbal attacks discount, disparage, and undermine. Aggressive language and tone of voice, profanity, unchecked anger, and scapegoating serve to silence targets, discredit and ignore their contributions, erode their self-confidence, and isolate them from their co-workers. If other workers begin to treat the target in similar ways, then it quickly becomes mobbing, and the victim is effectively ostracized and kept out of the information loop.

Body stance and nonverbal cues can heighten both intimidation and demoralization. This can include looming over someone, menacing them, leering at them, turning one’s back on them, sneering or rolling one’s eyes, making lewd or suggestive gestures, tearing up completed work, and even hurling objects within the target’s workspace.

More covert and passive-aggressive bullies may resort to delving into the target’s purse, briefcase, or desk drawers, withholding important phone messages, tampering with work stations, or hiding urgently needed documents.

Others purposely disregard an employee’s need for proper equipment, or for orientation or training. They use their supervisory role to make impossible work demands, over-supervise and constantly criticize, and impose on the target’s personal time. The only feedback provided is negative. Mistakes are not tolerated. Workers are kept off balance by shifting and inconsistent ground rules. Nothing the worker does is ever good enough, yet the standards by which performance is measured are never made clear. Feeling set up to fail is common in such circumstances.

At a systemic level, decision making practices may become dictatorial, with no room allowed for staff discussion or input. Trying to put forward alternatives may be treated as insubordination. In such a climate, to challenge ineffectual, unethical, or underhanded practices is to make oneself especially vulnerable.

How A Bullying Culture Takes Hold

Minor irritants left unaddressed can fester and turn into major conflicts. When people choose to turn a blind eye toward signs of impending trouble, they give it room to take root and intensify. Experts generally agree that psychological harassment is considerably more common in the workplace than physical violence, and passive aggression is more prevalent than active aggression.

A heavy volume of work carried out under intense competitive pressure can set the stage for bullying – yet where respectful workplace norms have been clearly established, this tendency can be pre-empted. Inept managers with too much control and too little accountability pose an element of risk, particularly if they are supervising either first-time workers unfamiliar with appropriate expectations and limits, or employees considerably better educated and more highly skilled who may create unfavorable comparisons with their supervisors. Such a manager may deliberately curry favor with senior management and at the same time cast his or her underlings in an unfavorable light.

Participants concluded that abuse can occur in any kind of workplace: small businesses, large corporations, government departments, educational settings, helping agencies, faith organizations, museums, and many others. The list is seemingly endless, and includes both unionized and non-unionized settings.

Who Gets Targeted?

Unlike school playground dynamics, where bullies tend to hone in on the weak, the defenseless, and the unpopular, in the workplace they seem more likely to go after solid performers with a strong sense of ethics. Often targets are competent, committed employees who try to do a good job. It is often in their nature to speak out on their own behalf, on behalf of others, or on principle, and this may lead to their being seen as potential whistleblowers. They may also be minority participants in the workforce who stand out because of their gender, ethnocultural or socio-economic background, sexual orientation, physical disability, or other variables, and may be scapegoated because they are different.

Who Bullies?

According to the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute (2003), 71% of workplace bullying is boss-to-employee, 17% is peer-to-peer, and 12% is bullying up the line from the lower ranks. Women were somewhat more likely to be bullied by women than men were (87% of the time for women vs 71% of the time for men). At the same time, they found that 58% of bullies are women.

Participants in the New Brunswick study also pointed out that clients, board members, and even the system itself can become bullies.

Survivors of workplace bullying admit that it is difficult to imagine what goes on in the bully’s mind, but they speculated that some bullies act out of insecurity, fear, jealousy, and a perceived need to protect themselves and their turf. Others were seen as deliberately combative, thriving on disruption, intrusion, and open conflict. Contempt for difference was proposed as the driving force for some. Others were seen as manipulative, narcissistic, and two-faced. Ruthlessness was another descriptor that surfaced frequently.

One of the pivotal questions explored in this research concerned the bully’s self-awareness and degree of intent. There is reason to believe that a good deal of bullying may be unwitting. The perpetrator may genuinely be unaware of the impact that his or her behavior is having on others. The bully’s interactional patterns may be habitual and deeply ingrained, and have gone unchallenged for years. If intimidation (whether conscious or unaware) has been a successful strategy since childhood, then why would the bully stop now? It is also possible that the individual may believe that he or she is only managing as the system expects. The organization’s own norms and values may be oppressive, requiring managers to bully in order to meet the company’s productivity objectives and to win in the game of corporate rewards and punishments. In such a setting, a manager who seeks to be compassionate and motivational may be chided for not exercising the traditional tactics of control and coercion, while a bullying manager may actually be rewarded through promotion.

The Human Cost

The impact of bullying spills over into all areas of targets’ lives, and residual effects linger long after the bullying comes to an end. Physiological symptoms include frequent headaches, dry throat, gastrointestinal problems, changes in body weight, sleep disturbances, diminishing energy, exhaustion, disrupted concentration, and hyper-vigilance and tearfulness – symptoms commonly associated with stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological and emotional responses include fearfulness, lack of joy, feeling overwhelmed, a sense of hopelessness, declining self-confidence, anger, deep disappointment, and spiraling depression. Some targets become overreactive and others, desensitized.

Perhaps worst of all, relationships with other people are profoundly affected. Targets often feel outcast and isolated, with no one in whom they can safely confide. Significant others weary of hearing the ongoing tale of woe, and become impatient, feeling that the victim should either stand up to the bully or quit the job which has become such an endurance test. Victims who internalize the blame are ashamed to disclose their problem. Some targets realize, to their horror, that they are becoming bullies at home.

Whether they choose to go or stay, workplace bullying victims find themselves facing added financial worries. Counseling bills add up while productivity plummets, and if the employee quits his or her job, then income and financial security are sacrificed. There may also be legal fees to pay if the individual decides to contest his or her workplace mistreatment. Often survivors of workplace bullying feel a need to make sense of their experience by preventing it from happening to others, and in this instance they may feel compelled at some point to engage in activism aimed at stopping abusive behavior in the workplace.

How To Handle It

Allowing unacceptable behavior to go unchecked gives it room to escalate. However, responsibility for addressing uncivil behavior does not rest solely with the target, who may be too beleaguered and demoralized to take action. Bystanders who see or overhear inappropriate behavior have an important role to play in letting the bully know that a line has been crossed, and by banding together, can send a clear message that this behavior will not be tolerated. Onus also rests with senior management to take appropriate corrective measures. But what if you’re the target? What can you do?

Maintaining good records, and storing them in a safe place outside the office is a good first step. VoiceMail, e-mail, and written memos all constitute evidence. Openly tape recording conversations is sometimes advisable, and one can request that comments be made in written form. Noting times, places, and significant details of what happened and who witnessed these events can be invaluable to a target who decides to take action. Journalling can provide a healthy outlet, and can also trigger fresh insights. This material can help in detecting any recurrent behavioral patterns, and can enable the target to anticipate and prepare for potential trouble spots. Finding safe ways to decompress after work is also vital; some of the study participants talked about car rides as a way to carve out the time and space that they needed to unwind. Positive self-talk and good self-care (rest, exercise, good food choices, and social support) can also help to safeguard a healthy perspective.

Personal integrity remains vitally important, and that entails refusal to act in ways that run counter to one’s own ethical principles. When the bully pursues the target outside of working hours, it becomes crucial to maintain boundaries. One way to do this is by letting an answering machine screen incoming calls.

It’s crucial to be discerning about whom you choose to tell. It is important to let others know what is happening to you, but you need to be sure that you aren’t feeding a pipeline back to the bully. Confidantes outside the work setting can provide that much-needed safety zone. If you feel that others in your organization are also at risk, then you may want to sound them out discreetly. Some bullies will target several people at once, and will try to keep them isolated from one another. Breaking down these barriers and sharing your experiences can be very empowering, and can pave the way to developing collective and collaborative strategies. Being caught off-guard makes it difficult to summon an appropriate response, whereas rehearsing strategies ahead of time with trusted associates can help to make one feel better prepared and better able to cope. Learning more about workplace rights is an important self-education process. Study participants found that they needed to familiarize themselves with the Employment Standards Act, the provisions of their employee and family assistance program, terms and conditions of employment, and phrases such as constructive dismissal and wrongful dismissal. Most had been unaware that the Employment Standards Branch is willing to receive anonymous calls on its toll-free line.

For those who decide to take action, there are several options. Filing an official complaint, seeking restitution through small claims court, and seeking the help of a lawyer willing to take the case pro bono or at a modest fee are all strategies to consider. Sometimes a written notice on legal letterhead will defuse the situation; in other cases, it may enflame it. Union involvement may be another route to consider if the bully is a member of management, but unions won’t intervene in conflicts among their own members. Decisions about pursuing one’s legal rights should be undertaken carefully and thoughtfully, weighing the potential gains and losses. Timing is a significant factor to consider. Sometimes a victim has suffered so much trauma that pursuing formal action is too overwhelming and too painful in the short term. Counteractive measures at a later date may be more appropriate in such a case, while at the same time taking care not to delay the matter beyond any statute of limitations.

Why Organizations Ignore It at Their Peril, and What They Need to Do About It

Unusually high levels of absenteeism, sick leave, stress leave, or staff turnover may be red flags of psychological abuse, and should prompt organizations to do some serious investigative work. When good people begin to jump ship, then senior management needs to ask why. Unless this exodus is stopped, word eventually gets around that this has become a poisoned work environment, and staff recruitment joins staff retention as a serious and potentially devastating organizational problem. There may also be expensive court actions involving constructive dismissal and wrongful dismissal. Clearly it is in every organization’s best interest to intervene when the first warning signs come into view, long before the situation gets out of hand.

Clear employment contracts might help to dispel miscommunication and mismatched expectations at the outset and delineate how conflicts should be settled. Safety committees (required in all workplaces with more than ten employees) are appropriate settings in which to raise concerns about bullying; this helps to flag issues that need to be addressed. It’s also wise to gather and present data on workplace bullying’s impact on profit and productivity; once management is aware of its impact on the bottom line, it is more likely to take decisive action.

Wise organizations create safe and effective ways for employees to report interpersonal problems, and are ready to offer coaching, mediation, or a range of other interventions at the earliest opportunity. There is certainly a place for neutral, outside investigators with sufficient freedom to assess the situation in an unbiased manner and recommend follow-up measures, together with timelines and processes for monitoring their implementation.

When workplace bullying occurs, it is important that it be investigated in a timely and dispassionate manner and that appropriate and decisive action be taken. This sends the message throughout the organization that abusive behavior is not acceptable and will have serious consequences.

The single best way to avoid workplace toxicity is to promote and model workplace respect. Company policies that value and invest in people and ensure their fair and reasonable treatment go a long way toward discouraging psychological harassment. A healthy workplace creates what Annette Simmons (1999) calls a safe place for dangerous truths, where authentic dialogue at all levels of the organization encourages the honest, open, and mutually respectful airing of issues and concerns, and a collaborative approach to problem solving that builds on common ground.

Public awareness needs to be generated around the issue of workplace bullying. Study participants felt that this should include training in diversity competence, change management, and conflict resolutions skills.

Some participants felt that it was time for the establishment of a neutral agency which could advocate for workers, hear concerns, adjudicate disputes, recommend actions, and set enforceable penalties.

Websites You Might Find Helpful

Canada Safety Council

The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute

The Field Foundation

No Bully For Me: Adding Insight to Injury

Peace at Work

Action Steps

What You Can Do as an Individual Employee

As an individual, scope out the organization before you accept a job offer

Use trusted friends as a sounding board when you see an emergent pattern that is making you uneasy

Engage the bully early on in respectful two-way dialogue aimed at improving the working relationship to your mutual benefit

Carefully document incidents which you feel have crossed the line

Enlist the active support of witnesses

Seek the advice of legal counsel

File a formal complaint.

What You Can Do as a Group of Employees

  • Informal collective responses to inappropriate behavior. See Code Pink example below.
  • Gathering and Analyzing Information
  • Help to create a respectful workplace initiative

Code Pink

An anesthesiologist in a regional hospital was well-known for his volatile behavior… physical injury to patients, verbal abuse to patients and staff, and threats to nurses. A group of nurses came up with an informal response of their own: Code Pink. When Code Pink was called, any nurses who were available came to stand as silent witnesses to the bullying incident what was underway. Picture the result. The bully was in full Technicolor rant: red-faced and turning the air blue. He would suddenly become aware of a circle of witnesses closing ranks around him, silently observing. Knowing that he was being watched and might be reported was enough to shut him down.

This real-life situation captured widespread media attention because it represents an informal, collective response on the part of employees. They demonstrated that they could reclaim immediate power over the situation, even when the official structures of the organization were slow to take action.

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