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Expert Answers on Workplace Bullying

Expert Answers on Workplace Bullying

Bullying at work is defined as repeated, health-endangering mistreatment; it's not simple rudeness or "incivility." It's driven by a perpetrator working his agenda -- namely, the need to control others in ways that actually prevent work from getting done. Bullying is irrational and indefensible, but is so common that it affects one in six workers. In response to a popular, two-part series on workplace bullying, here are answers to some of Monster users' most frequently asked questions on the subject.     

Why are bullies the way they are? 

Evolution, genetics and lousy childhood experiences can account for the worst offenders. But the majority are soccer moms and church deacons -- normal people like us. So, don't waste time ruminating about the bully's motivation. The three-part recipe for bullying can happen in any size workplace, any type of business:  

  • The employer creates cutthroat, competitive opportunities, forcing people to fight over scarce resources, such as budget, time and status. 
  • Folks with a tendency to exploit and manipulate others see and capitalize on those chances. 
  • Hyperaggressive bullies win the rewards and goodies while the rest of us "lose." Over time, the workplace becomes prone to bullying. 

Why do HR and management always side with the bullies?

HR works for management; it is not an advocate for workers. In worst cases, HR even coaches the bullying manager (71 percent of bullies are bosses) on how to document into oblivion an objectively well-performing worker. The bully's boss gives great support to the bully, probably because he hired the bully to clean up the unit or liked the bully's aggression. Yet bullies are counterproductive and too expensive to keep. The company pays with turnover, absenteeism and other costs associated with a chronically stressed, fear-plagued "worst place to work."

Why do targets always end up the losers?

No one believes them. Coworkers rarely help, out of an imagined fear about their own safety. When targets do complain after some time passes (an average of 22 months), the higher-ups don't want to believe that the managers they adore could have done the hurtful things ascribed to them. In his Senate confirmation hearings to be UN ambassador, John Bolton was described by a former State Department colleague as a "kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy." Kissing up, or ingratiation, works to protect bullies when they're exposed. The lone bullied target is branded a "troublemaker" and pays the price by losing his job in seven out of 10 cases. Bullies win thanks and support from the top, while targets are driven out. Targets lose the war but are not losers. Once they're out of the crosshairs of the person gunning for them and are safe in the next job, they can resume their normal lives.

What can job seekers do to make sure that being bullied doesn't become a pattern?

First, take an assertive approach when interviewing for your next job. Before you accept it, ask some or all of the following questions: Why is the job open? How do I contact the last person who held this position? What's the turnover rate in this department? How does the company ensure respectful treatment? What happens to convicted harassers? What gets a person labeled as a troublemaker here? Do you conduct 360-degree evaluations, and what do you do with the information? Is there a budget for staff and management training to upgrade skills?

Second, make some lifestyle changes. You are not to blame for being targeted by the bully. However, the bully's impact on you is magnified by a couple of your own positive, personal traits. Limit your emotional investment in your job to the level the company reciprocates. Your self-identity depends on a lot more than a job. Curb your perfectionism that leads to unmet expectations and triggers righteous indignation. Establish more rigid personal psychological boundaries so that outsiders who inflict harm cannot get inside your head to redefine you as someone you are not. (Bullies lie to targets to convince them they are incompetent.) They have no business inside your head or influencing your friends. Tell people with destructive opinions of you to keep quiet. Reserve personal space for your trusted intimates; don't let in jerks at work.

[Gary Namie, PhD, is founder and director of The Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington, and co-author of The Bully At Work. He is an anti-bullying advocate and frequent media commentator whose appearances have included the "Today" show and "Good Morning America." He is also principal consultant for The Work Doctor and established BullyBusters.]

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