04.26.2011 – 07:48PM
5 Nuggets of Wisdom for Bullying in the Workplace
By Jackie Humans, Ph.D.
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me!”
Children are often taught words can’t hurt them, but grown-ups know better. Sometimes words inflict the biggest scars we carry, especially if they come from a bully–and the bully happens to be your boss.
Office bullying is a growing epidemic in the workplace. According to this new survey (source: Workplace Bullying Institute), more than one out of three, or 35 percent (53.5 million), American adults say they have been bullied at work.
Anti-bully advocate and bully prevention program leader, Dr. Jackie Humans, is a graduate of the Workplace Bullying Institute, the same organization who conducted this survey, and the only one in the United States that trains individuals how to present anti-bullying programs for bullying in the workplace. In this article she shares how to cope with the Workplace Bully.
1: Recognizing a Bully
Forget about realism for a moment and pretend your boss or a coworker suddenly comes charging down the hallway toward you, with her fist raised. Just as she begins to reach striking distance, what would you instinctively do? Chances are excellent that even if you’ve never been in a fistfight in your life, you’d raise your arm to deflect the blow. What you wouldn’t do is keep your arms at your sides, wait to be struck and then tell yourself, “Gee, I must need to work harder.”
Ironically, that’s how targets of workplace bullying react everyday when the attack is verbal. It’s vitally important to prepare yourself for deflecting verbal attacks by learning to recognize the difference between legitimate criticism and bullying. Legitimate criticism is always about job performance and never about extraneous issues such as your height, weight, clothing or receding hairline. When someone criticizes you for reasons that have nothing to do with the way you perform your job, it’s bullying–pure and simple.
2: He Who Hesitates Is Lost
The above example of a boss or coworker suddenly becoming violent is ludicrous precisely because bullying never starts that way. All bullies, whether they’re in the schoolyard, prison yard or workplace, first test the waters by saying or doing something provocative and then very carefully gauge your reaction. Responding with hesitancy shows the bully you’d make an ideal target.
When you respond confidently, a bully is far more likely to categorize you as someone who’d make a lousy target. For example, if you were presenting an idea in a group meeting and someone rudely interrupted you, you could put your hand out in front of you as though you were stopping traffic and say, “Excuse me. I wasn’t finished. How about this: you grant me the courtesy of letting me finish and I promise not to interrupt you when you’re talking?” Then smoothly continue speaking where you left off.
3: Body Language Trumps Words
Body language is deeply embedded into our collective psyche. Let’s go back to the above example of someone interrupting you during a business meeting. If you used my exact words but said them while looking down at your hands, with your shoulders slumped and using a whiny tone of voice, what message would you actually be communicating? The words we speak are never as powerful as the way we say them.
4: Keep a Journal
It’s almost always better to try handling a bully on your own terms than to ask management to intervene, for three reasons: the default assumption of others is likely to be that you’re not a team player; bullies are adept at office politics and can usually outflank targets; and no one appreciates having extra work piled on their plate, especially upper management.
So why bother keeping a journal? The most important person who needs to be convinced you’ve been victimized is you. Documenting everything makes it easier to see you’re not the one at fault. When we feel sure of ourselves, we exude self-confident body language as effortlessly as breathing. This may sound simplistic but it’s what will enable you to appear less attractive as a target and make a fresh start, no matter where you find yourself.
A secondary benefit is occasionally upper management is receptive to complaints about a bully. Document each incident by including the five W’s: who, what, when, where and witnesses. Strictly avoid using emotional language such as “I was devastated!” or making value judgments, such as “He enjoys hurting people.” These kinds of statements will only make you look unprofessional. Try to include an estimate of what the bully is costing the company in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism and turnover. (The online site, Level Playing Field, and book, The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton, offer information about the costs of workplace bullying.)
Lastly, report the bullying to someone who’s at least two to three levels above the bully within the corporate hierarchy. They’re less likely to be friends with the bully.
Step 5: Cut Your Losses
It’s a natural and normal human reaction to want justice; to see the bully punished and our dignity restored by reporting the bully to upper management or by bringing a lawsuit against our employer. But you’re kidding yourself if you think the deck isn’t greatly stacked against targets.
When workplace bullying gets reported, 62% of the time the organization does nothing or actually rewards the bully.* Even worse, when targets try suing the organization, they soon learn that unlike Australia, Canada and some countries in Europe, there are no laws in the US against workplace bullying. In the very rare instances when targets have won monetary judgments after protracted litigation (corporations have very deep pockets), the toll on their careers and families has been horrendous.
Eighty-two percent of targets eventually leave their jobs.* Targets shouldn’t be the ones who get ‘punished’ by having to change jobs, often for a lower salary. But until our legislators make bullying in the workplace illegal, it’s often wiser to cut your losses.
The best defense against a workplace bully is a good offense. Confronting the bully’s behavior the first time it happens with strong words and body language is key. Documenting the bullying will help clarify your thinking, but won’t necessarily impress upper management. Unless and until new laws are created to protect employees against workplace bullying, the primary remedy for targets seems to be resigning and making a fresh start elsewhere.
*Workplace Bullying Institute, 2010
About Jackie Humans, Ph.D.
Dr. Jackie Humans is a graduate of the Workplace Bullying Institute, the only organization in the United States that trains individuals how to present anti-bullying programs for bullying in the workplace. She also works with Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS), a nonprofit organization that sends volunteers into schools to present programs about keeping kids safe. She is a well-known speaker and program leader on subjects such as bully prevention, Internet safety, sexual harassment, date rape and child abuse. She is the author of 15 Ways to ZAP a Bully!
This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers’ community and expresses this author’s views alone.
Readers: What are your experiences with workplace bullying? Are there other positive solutions targets can try? Share your thoughts on Talkback!