Never Tolerate Workplace Bullies

OFFICE RAGE is on the rise. In increasingly high-stress workplaces with heavy workloads, long hours, tight resources, exhausted and angry co-workers and demanding customers, more people are losing it and behaving badly. One New York City survey found that 42 percent of respondents admitted there was yelling and verbal abuse in their workplace; 23 percent said they had been “driven to tears.”

Granted, we’re human and from time to time we lose control of our emotions, but there are no excuses when it comes to bullying behavior and abuse.

Sadly, 49 percent of American workers report having been affected by workplace bullying, either as a target themselves or having witnessed abusive behavior against a co-worker, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2007 survey. The cost is high: Victims suffer mental and physical effects and companies pay in high turnover, litigation costs, low morale and workers compensation.

As defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating and/or intimidating, or work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done.” The key words: repeated, health-harming mistreatment.

Workplace bullies should never be tolerated. There are laws protecting workers from intimidation or from a hostile or offensive work environment. Workplace bullying often involves abuse or misuse of power (the vast majority of bullies are bosses), often creating a feeling of helplessness in victims.

Just because a boss is tough or has high performance expectations doesn’t make him or her a bully. Bullies, by definition, are abusive.

Examples include:

  • Falsely accusing and punishing for “errors” not actually made.
  • Being treated differently than the rest of your work group.
  • Public humiliation.
  • Demonstration of hostility, which can include nonverbal intimidation (glaring, clenched fists and threatening posture).
  • Exhibited uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group.
  • Demeaning comments.

If you’re a victim of workplace bullying:

Recognize bullying for what it is and get help. Document incidents, dates and what was said or done. When someone is intimidating or abusing you, leave the situation immediately, then go to human resources. If HR doesn’t take immediate action and resolve the issue, contact your employee assistance program or talk with an attorney. Leave if you don’t feel safe.

If you’re the problem:

Get help. Anger management therapy or a coach specializing in emotional intelligence can help you gain insight into what triggers your bad behavior and learn new ways of coping in stressful workplace situations.

Recognize your own signs of an impending emotional hijack. These may include a sudden rapid heart rate, sweaty palms or shallow breathing (or the urge to throw something or hit someone). Once you are emotionally reactive and flooding occurs with cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your body, it’s almost impossible to resolve a problem or conflict rationally. The best thing to do is remove yourself from the situation. Leave the office and don’t return until you have calmed down.

What companies should do:

It’s the responsibility of senior leaders to create a safe and healthy work environment. This means protecting workers against harassment and bullying. Communicate and enforce a zero-tolerance bullying policy and clearly define behaviors that won’t be tolerated.

Offer harassment training to workers.

Get help for those who have a history or demonstrate signs of significant emotional intelligence challenges. This may include coaching, therapy or anger management. Coaching only works for those individuals who admit they have a problem and are willing to do the hard work associated with genuine personal reflection and the willingness to learn new behaviors.

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