By Teresa A. Daniel
2009, 150 pages, Paperback
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Contrary to the expectations of most citizens, while it may be both immoral and unprofessional, it is not illegal in the United States for managers to threaten, insult, humiliate, ignore or mock employees; give employees “the evil eye”; gossip and spread rumors; withhold information that employees need to complete their work; or take credit for someone else’s work. Unfortunately, these types of behaviors are not rare occurrences, but occur all too often in many American workplaces.
The physical or emotional health (and sometimes both) of employees working in organizations where these types of actions are taking place are often severely impacted. In addition, the confidence of the targeted employee is frequently so destroyed by the repeated negative actions that they lack even the courage necessary to leave such a toxic environment. Instead, they find themselves trapped in a world of psychological abuse — targets of a phenomenon that has been labeled workplace bullying.
The Problem of Workplace Bullying
In a nutshell, the concept of workplace bullying refers to “repeated mistreatment [against a target individual] manifested as either verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work, or a combination of the three.” The consequences are serious, including harm to the affected individuals, their co-workers, their friends and family, as well as the organizations in which they work.
During the past decade in the United States, the issue has attracted media attention, legal attention, and union attention. Additionally, there appears to be a growing interest among academics, as well as a number of activists and research-based organizations. Internationally, the topic has received extensive attention from both academic researchers and the business community over the past 20 years. In fact, a number of countries in the European Union, Scandinavia, Australia, and Canada have actually passed legislation to protect employees from such abusive behaviors at work.
Though there were some early non-scientific or informal Internet-based polls about the incidence of bullying in workplaces across the United States, the prevalence of this issue has only recently been understood as a result of several comprehensive and in-depth scientific surveys. Three important studies released in 2007 and 2008 confirmed the seriousness of the problem in American workplaces:
· A March 2007 survey of 1,000 adults confirmed that nearly 45 percent of the respondents reported that they have worked for an abusive boss.
· Similarly, a September 2007 poll found that 37 percent of American workers — an estimated 54 million employees — report being bullied at work. When organizational bystanders are included, bullying affects nearly half (49 percent) of all full- or part-time employees in America, an estimated 71.5 million workers.
· In a joint study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Ethics Resource Center, approximately a third of HR professionals (32 percent) reported having observed misconduct that they believed violated their organizations’ ethics standards, company policy, or the law. Of the top five types of misconduct witnessed, the most prevalent included “abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees (excluding sexual harassment),” with 57 percent of the participants confirming that they had witnessed this type of bullying behavior at work.
Researchers in this area have compared workplace bullying to the concerns expressed about sexual harassment 20 years ago. More research is needed to generate a greater understanding of the nature and extent of the phenomenon, particularly in the United States, given that workplace bullying has been reported to be four times as prevalent as either illegal discrimination or harassment.
In fact, a recent review of 100 studies conducted over 21 years comparing the consequences of an employee’s experience of sexual harassment and workplace aggression found that workplace bullying appears to inflict more severe harm on employees than does sexual harassment. According to the study, employees who experience bullying, incivility, or interpersonal conflict were more likely to quit their jobs, have lower well-being, be less satisfied with their jobs, and have less satisfying relations with their bosses than employees who were sexually harassed. Targets also reported more job stress, less job commitment, and higher levels of anger and anxiety.
As confirmed by the recent incidence studies, the pervasiveness of the problem suggests that bullying is systemic in American business environments. As a result, this type of behavior will likely be hard to change. The degree, gravity, and regularity of workplace bullying may require law or policy changes, or both. Just as sexually harassing behavior at work was first identified as a problem and deemed unacceptable by society (and then later codified into law), workplace bullying appears to be on a similar trajectory in the United States.
Recent estimates suggest that American businesses lose approximately $300 billion per year as a result of the loss of productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and increased medical costs due to the increased stress at work. In an ideal world, organizations in the United States would readily perceive the economic, operational, and morale benefits that would likely be associated with the elimination of workplace bullying. However, new workplace policies are not usually initiated by employers voluntarily; rather, they are created most often in direct response to regulatory laws and legal requirements.
The prevalence and severity of the problem and the grassroots effort to implement model legislation, coupled with the damages and costs related to the problem, suggest that companies in the United States need to elevate their attention to this issue and take the steps necessary to understand and address this workplace issue sooner rather than later.
Given that HR professionals are the corporate insiders typically charged with the responsibility for developing strategies, policies, and training to respond to new legislation or potential legal issues, this book is designed to provide not only an overview of the problem of workplace bullying, but also some practical strategies and solutions to help HR professionals and their companies proactively deal with the problem.
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