Workplace bullying has become a pervasive and insidious problem in corporate workplaces. In a recent study conducted by employment company Monster, around 90% of respondents reported having been bullied at work.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

According to a group of prominent organizational behavior theorists, bullying has several notable features that separate it from other types of inappropriate and harmful workplace behaviors. They state:

“Bullying at work means harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks. In order for the label bullying […] to be applied to a particular activity, interaction or process it has to occur repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period of time (e.g. about six months). Bullying is an escalated process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts.”

The definition above is not a hard and fast rule; rather, it is a single definition from one group. For example, based on the Monster survey, it is unlikely that respondents who felt bullied held the same standard (regularity and/or duration). Regardless of the definition being applied, employers should not wait until a bullying-like behavior is being repeated over a long duration to act.

Widespread, Underreported, And Detrimental

Though bullying is commonly reported in the context of a study, workers are far less prone to bring it to the attention of their organizations. In many cases, employees feel that they aren’t sure that what they have experienced would be considered bullying by their companies. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is not a universal awareness of what constitutes workplace bullying. Additionally, employees often fear retaliation from the perpetrator or the company they work for.

The general unwillingness to report workplace bullying poses a problem for both the victims and their organizations. A recent meta-analysis found that victims of bullying frequently experience depression, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and burnout. In addition, several studies have found bullying to be associated with decreased retentionpresenteeismjob satisfaction,  engagement, and productivity.

Given that workplace bullying is widespread, underreported, and detrimental to individual and organizational well-being, organizations must develop strategies to decrease the frequency with which it occurs and mitigate its impact when it does.

How To Handle Workplace Bullies

Though bullying has several sources, many of which are external to organizations, there are several steps that companies can take to make the problem less severe.

  • Start with culture: Organizational culture can have a significant impact on workplace bullying rates. Researchers have theorized that bullying is more likely to occur in “restrained” cultures where employees are encouraged to control and regulate gratification of needs by means of strict social norms than in “indulgent” cultures where workers feel that they have a high degree of personal control over their lives and ways they express themselves. Similarly, theorists speculate that bullying may be more common in “individualistic” cultures than “collectivistic” ones. Therefore, by taking strategic control over culture, organizations can decrease the frequency of bullying within their ranks.
  • Declare an anti-bullying stance: Given that some companies purposely utilize tactics that either surpass or sit on the border of what counts as bullying, employees may believe that if they were to report an instance of bullying, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. Victims will be more likely to speak up when their companies declare a staunch anti-bullying stance.
  • Define it: As noted above, much of what makes workplace bullying so prevalent and so unlikely to be reported is a lack of clear definitions, examples, and guidelines. Employers should provide a clear account of bullying along with the penalties for perpetrators in their company handbook. This will discourage abusers from bullying others and encourage victims to speak up.
  • Offer anonymity: Workers often fear retaliation when reporting the misbehaviors of colleagues. As a result, employers must allow workers to provide anonymous reports and tips. By not having to reveal their identity, both victims and witnesses of bullying will be more likely to come forward with pertinent information.
  • Consult with an employment attorney: While there is no federal law against workplace bullying, around 30 legislatures have introduced or passed bills to outlaw it at the state level. These policies vary in terms of how they define workplace bullying and what they require of employers. Companies may need the help of a legal professional to make sense of applicable laws as they continue to evolve.

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