Bullies become work hazard More employees say hostile environments are affecting jobs


November 02, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BENICIA, Calif. -- The American workplace is not just getting leaner.

It's getting meaner.

Attila-the-Hun bosses who yell or browbeat. Back-stabbing co-workers who spread malicious rumors or give you the silent treatment.

This behavior has been called everything from workplace incivility to psychological aggression. Lawyers call it a hostile work environment.

But the experts who study it have another term for the trend: workplace bullying.

From the schoolyard to the workplace, bullying is loosely defined as repeated aggressive behavior that deliberately causes physical or psychological torment.

Called the silent epidemic, it is only in recent years that bullying, long the subject of exhaustive research and public debate abroad, has begun to emerge as a major workplace issue in corporate America.

In our anxiety-ridden workplace where job security is dead, the experts -- academics, management consultants, industrial psychologists -- report a rise in bullying in cubicles, manufacturing plants and executive suites. Lawyers also note an alarming uptick in workers' compensation claims and hostile work environment lawsuits churning through the nation's courts.

More of us say we feel we are at the mercy of a bullying boor. A recent worldwide survey of workplace violence from the International Labour Organization found that bullying -- targeting an employee for intimidation -- and mobbing -- ganging up on an employee -- are among the fastest-growing complaints of American workers.

So who can the bullied call?

The bully busters, of course.

Benicia-based psychologist Gary Namie and his psychotherapist wife, Ruth, have launched a national grass-roots "bully-busting" campaign on the World Wide Web. Their platform is simple: "Work shouldn't hurt." Their agenda is twofold: to help workers "bully-proof" themselves and to raise public awareness.

Each month, the Namies' Web site, www.workdoctor.com, averages 40,000 to 44,000 visitors -- workers, some in a state of near despair over the abuse they say they suffer at the hands of a co-worker or boss:

A field-service technician for an equipment rental company complains his manager's favorite put-down is: "Are you going to be stupid the rest of your life?"

An employee describes how a manager brags to his staff at meetings that he can get rid of anyone: In 19 months, the manager has fired 14 of 33 workers.

An office worker from a large company says his boss works himself into fits of profanity and rage so violent that workers are reduced to tears.

Ailments from being bullied

The bullied also complain of psychological or physical ailments: anxiety, sleeplessness, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, skin problems, panic attacks and low self-esteem.

The Namies' Web site and phone lines have been so flooded with mistreated workers and their stories, they are planning the first U.S. conference on workplace bullying and hope to publish a book on the subject. "We are employee advocates," Gary Namie said. "We are naive enough to think we can do something about workplace bullying."

Bullying used to be tolerated -- or outright condoned -- in the business-is-war Zeitgeist of the 1980s and early 1990s, when unemployment was high and workers had no choice but to put up and shut up. But now companies must struggle to hire and keep qualified workers in a superheated job market.

Maintaining humane relations in the workplace has become a matter of simple economics. Not only can bullying inflict deep emotional scars on its victims, it can cost American companies millions of dollars in lost productivity and employee turnover each year, researchers say.

"Workplace bullying is very prevalent and very hurtful to the individual and to the organization," said Loraleigh Keashly, a social psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit. Because in today's culture so much of our identities and self-esteem are derived from our jobs, "the cumulative effects of emotional abuse can be dramatic and far-reaching," she said.

Workers targeted by bullies often have trouble explaining what is happening to them. Some people never report the abuse because they fear it will jeopardize their careers. Others no longer go that extra mile for a company they feel has let them down. A few are so alienated they fight back, stealing proprietary information or committing acts of sabotage.

A survey earlier this year of more than 400 employees found corporate restructuring, re-engineering and layoffs often lead to intentional acts of verbal aggression, according to Joel Neuman, a State University of New York associate management professor who worked on the report. The better companies treat workers, the lower the incidence of aggression, Neuman found.

'Shouldn't go too far'

But are workers just being too thin-skinned? Should they put up with a supervisor's sarcastic remark or a co-worker's icy look, no matter how ego-crushing or disheartening?

"We can't legislate civility in the workplace," contended Jeff Tanenbaum, a San Francisco lawyer who advises employers. "We should have rules that prohibit extreme behavior but we shouldn't go too far. For many people, work will never live up to expectations. Work is stressful, that's why we call it work. If it wasn't stressful, we would call it a vacation in Hawaii."

While some Scandinavian countries have passed laws to protect workers against workplace bullying, American companies have been slow to recognize it as a legitimate issue. The Namies and other researchers urge corporate managers to take action.

"We teach our children how to bully-proof themselves," said Dianne Blomberg, a workplace relationship expert at Metropolitan State College in Denver. "Now we need to teach workers to bully-proof themselves."

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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