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Mistreatment

Summer 2012

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No organization tolerates bullying. So why do so many workers continue to feel abused?

By Vadim Liberman

Vadim Liberman is senior editor of TCB Review.

On the morning of June 30, 2010, Kevin Morrissey received an admonishing email from his boss, Ted Genoways. It wasn’t the first such missive, but it would be the last. Hours later, Morrissey, 52, shot himself in the head.

Morrissey had questioned accounting practices at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where he was managing editor; allegedly, Genoways and university officials had dismissed his concerns. Increasingly rebuked for his daily work, Morrissey slumped deeper into depression, according to friends and family.

Then Genoways sent an email contending that Morrissey had “engaged in unacceptable workplace behavior.” Without specifying the conduct, he ordered Morrissey to work from home for a week and not discuss the issue with colleagues. Ten days later, after Genoways’ final note—lambasting Morrissey for mishandling an article source—the expulsion turned tragically permanent.

Genoways, now retired, admits having dealt harshly with Morrissey but rejects blame for “bullycide.” Of course, he did not shoot Morrissey, but did he bully him?

From Classrooms to Cubicles

Bosses have tormented workers ever since there were workers to torment, but only recently have we become sensitized to what studies indicate is four times more common than sexual harassment. Most workplace bullying doesn’t climax at the point of a pistol, but it can be devastating nevertheless to morale, productivity, and HR departments, strongly affecting not only the target but his whole department—and even the entire company.

30 to 50 percent of U.S. workers say they've been bullied at some point at work.

Bullying goes beyond everyday rudeness and incivility—it’s repetitive, enduring, and escalating, entwined with perceived power disparities and matters of intent. It turns the most grown-up of environments, the modern workplace, into something resembling junior high, in which so many of us felt helpless to deflect the attentions of a bigger kid who had decided, seemingly randomly, to make our lives hell.

Just as in that horrific setting, someone with an eye for frailty and a mild sadistic streak can keep us off balance, distracted, and looking over our shoulder. We may seek out alternate paths to our cubicle and stay home on the flimsiest excuse. And just as we may have been reluctant to tell anyone about teenage cruelty, workplace victims often keep bullying to ourselves, since talking about it acknowledges weakness and powerlessness, which doesn’t exactly mark complainants as future leaders. Plus, in the absence of an email thread or actual violence, bullying may be hard to explain, much less prove, to a supervisor or HR rep.

It doesn’t make it easier that, as in middle school, bullying isn’t necessarily physical or face-to-face—just think of the reputational damage that a Mean Girls-style whisper campaign can inflict.

With financial pressures intensifying and business units stretched ever thinner, are rising workplace tensions leading to more bullying? It’s difficult to say, and not only because one person’s motivation-minded tough love is another’s bullying. “We haven’t had validated measures,” explains Joel Neuman, a workplace-aggression consultant and director of the Center for Applied Management at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “Too many people have their own ad-hoc instruments with different scales and definitions.”

Still, you know workplace bullying when you see it: persistent and unreasonable aggression that creates an unhealthy, hostile environment, impairing the well-being of targeted individuals and organizations. (Though the focus here is on bosses browbeating subordinates—since that constitutes 75 percent of workplace bullying—obviously, co-workers can also turn on each other. Rarely, a direct report may even bully a boss.) People who feel picked on withdraw from work life as much as they can, to avoid contact—not exactly conducive to open, collaborative office environments.

“People have joked that of course a Canadian like me studies this issue because Canadians want everything to be nice,” says Loraleigh Keashly, a conflict-resolution trainer and associate professor in the communication department at Wayne State University. “But it’s not about being nice—it’s about treating people like they have value.” That is, brushing past a co-worker in the hallway without saying hello doesn’t make you a bully—unless you’re also continually undermining her work and soiling her reputation.

Measuring difficulties aside, 30 to 50 percent of U.S. workers say they’ve been bullied at some point at work, depending on the study, while 10 to 20 percent report being bullied at any given time. Surveys also reveal that the whiter the collar, the darker the prevalence of bullying.

In other words, Ted Genowayses and Kevin Morrisseys abound. Some may work for you. One might be you.

When It Doesn’t Get Better

Explicit workplace bullying entails yelling, name-calling, belittling of opinions, insults, inappropriate jokes, false accusations, verbal and nonverbal intimidation, spreading of rumors, public humiliation, discounting of accomplishments, destructive criticism. Frankly, you won’t imagine anything a bully hasn’t already done in a company somewhere.

Obviously, no organization tolerates this. (Well, almost no organization—see “Tony’s Tale” at the end of the article) Besides which—screaming? Taunting? That’s child’s play, literally. The workplace is no sandbox, and most executives and would-be executives are too sophisticated to act overtly. Sure, tantrum-throwing tyrants are kicking sand somewhere, but if you look only for the beast who snarls the loudest, you’ll miss the destructive elephant in the room. “Ninety percent of bullying is under the radar,” says Lynn Taylor, a workplace consultant and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. “Bullies don’t want to lose their jobs, so they’ll do things that are just subversive enough.”

Unlike schoolyard bullies, who break rules, their office counterparts manipulate them. To conceal their aggression in plain sight, “workplace bullies use organizational tools to help them bully,” explains Catherine Mattice, president of the workplace consultancy Civility Partners. Such actions include threatening disciplinary action and job loss, giving poor performance appraisals, assigning unreasonable amounts of work, shifting deadlines and other goals, stealing credit, laying undue blame, allotting busy work, creating unrealistic demands, and micromanaging.

“I’ve seen targets forced to move their desks into remote corners where they couldn’t interact with colleagues,” says Lisa Barrow, an assistant professor at Brock University and author of In Darkness Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying. “That’s not only physically isolating but sends a message that co-workers shouldn’t interact with these employees.”

Often, acts of omission inflict the greatest harm: Withholding necessary information and resources, removing job responsibilities, preventing access to opportunities, holding back praise, raises, and promotions, and excluding one from meetings are among the more clandestine acts of aggression.

Hold on. What if you have legitimate reasons for giving your subordinate a negative review or excluding him from some meetings? What if? Bullies know that others—including their targets—will wonder. “If I complain to HR, ‘My manager told a dirty joke,’ everyone knows there are no ifs, ands, or buts about what he did,” Mattice says. “But if I say, ‘My manager took away work and rolled his eyes at me in a meeting,’ that’s hard for people to understand.”

But not hard for a bully to help people understand. The sad irony is that if you’ve got a boss who’s hammering away at you, eventually your work will suffer as a result. By the time you complain, your boss can easily point to dwindling performance to justify his actions—the adult version of “He started it!” Then, too, your boss may shrug in wide-eyed bewilderment or feign victimhood himself.

Bullies need not resort to physical violence for victims to feel knives twisting their insides. Worse is the psychological damage. “Evil demons, physical wounds, chiseling and chipping away, and broken, torn hearts” are some metaphors that victims summon to describe their experiences in a research paper by Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an associate professor in the University of New Mexico’s department of communication and journalism. About one in ten targets endures severe post-traumatic stress disorder, according to research by occupational psychologist Noreen Tehrani, who likens symptoms to those of returning soldiers, battered women, and child-abuse victims. Many contemplate suicide or homicide.

“I received one call from a man who was going to jump in front of a train because he couldn’t take the undue pressure to perform and was being publicly humiliated and yelled at,” recalls Lisa Barrow.

“When someone feels mistreated, humiliated, and undermined, their confidence drops steeply,” says Charlotte Rayner, professor of HR management at England’s University of Portsmouth and president of the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment. “People are frightened, nervous, and stressed to go into work. Companies have a responsibility to provide reasonably safe working environments. That includes psychological safety.”

Addressing workplace bullying isn’t just a moral imperative—which it is—but a financial one. Bullying plagues businesses with increased compensation costs, higher medical expenses, reduced productivity, and absenteeism. And that’s assuming that abused workers stay. Most do not. The Workplace Bullying Institute, a victims’ advocacy group, estimates that 66 percent of aggrieved employees quit to end the bullying. By contrast, companies terminate only 1 to 2 percent of bullies.

Why So Cruel?

What’s the typical victim profile? There isn’t one. “There are no significant differences regarding age, gender, or other large demographic characteristics for victims,” reveals Rayner. Sure, some managers prey on employees based on a Title VII characteristic. For them, there’s Gloria Allred. For the rest, a therapist may provide more help than an attorney. (See “This Can’t Be Legal, Right?”, at the end of the article.) The Workplace Bullying Institute paints typical victims as competent, experienced, skilled, honest, cooperative, popular, and nonconfrontational; academic experts are skeptical of this portrayal, citing an absence of confirming research.

Bullies appear equally hard to classify. Some displace anger with the organization onto subordinates when they think the company has treated them unfairly, perhaps denying pay or a promotion. Also, “we tend to see more aggressive behavior once norms at the organization have been weakened,” Keashly points out. For instance, recessions, corporate restructurings, downsizings, and other pressures can incite others to whip out the whip.

A more general consensus is that managers mistreat workers due to their own personal or professional insecurities. Threatened by others, they lash out to divert attention from self-perceived inadequacies. While this seems to legitimize that bullies target exceptional performers, it fails to describe why everyone with insecurities—in other words, everyone—doesn’t engage in bullying when given the opportunity. The best explication may be the simplest: We come from different backgrounds, so—

So what? Explanations are not justifications. Someone may have a hundred inclinations to bully, but there’s only one relevant reason why he actually does: because the organization allows him to. “Inaction is not neutral. It supports the bully,” says Rayner. “If your environment expects you to treat people decently, you will. We can all be bullies or angelic managers. Every so often, we get sloppy or tired or get into bad habits, and if the organization doesn’t act, we just carry on, because it’s so easy to. We end up doing what we can get away with.”

Adds Keashly: “Research shows that even if you have someone with a high proclivity to sexually harass, he won’t do it if the organization won’t tolerate it. That says the company has a profound influence on an employee’s behavior. Once you permit, you promote.”

Of course, you could fire the person (assuming you could expose him). End of story. But that only treats a symptom. If the corporate culture is diseased, the bully was never the true ailment. Now, the real story begins.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.