Are You in a Bully-Prone Industry

Why bad behavior is more prevalent in certain fields and what you can do about it.

By Dana Wilkie Mar 1, 2016
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March 2016 HR Magazine cover During more than two decades as a nurse, researcher, and occupational safety and health manager, Peggy Berry, SHRM-SCP, has witnessed—and listened to stories about—countless incidents of workplace bullying.

A couple of years ago, a nurse in Ohio told Berry that his supervisor badgered him in a hospital emergency room because he asked to take vacation on days when she would have to fill in for him due to her own poor planning. Not only did she try to force him to work during that time, she repeatedly hectored him before his vacation. (He took the time off nonetheless and was relie​ved when he didn’t suffer retaliation.)

Unfortunately, this man’s experience is all too common in many fields where stressful conditions and rigid hierarchical structures create environments that are particularly prone to bullying. More than one-quarter of U.S. workers say they have been bullied at work, and another 21 percent say they have witnessed such abusive conduct, including threats, intimidation, humiliation, work sabotage or verbal abuse, according to the 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey conducted by Zogby Analytics for the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Whether a specific workplace is particularly vulnerable to bullying depends on a variety of factors, including the culture, the personalities drawn to that line of work and the organization’s structure.

While other countries—England, Sweden, Australia among them—have laws prohibiting workplace bullying, there are no federal or state bans in the U.S. However, HR professionals need to be sensitive to complaints about this behavior because it can increase stress, drive turnover and lead to legal headaches. They should be alert for patterns of grievances surrounding particular employees.

“Typically, these behaviors aren’t going to be a singular event, but repetitive events or behaviors that have a negative impact on an employee,” says Edward Yost, SHRM-SCP, an HR business partner and employee relations expert at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “If an employee quits due to such an environment, he or she could potentially raise a claim of wrongful discharge. An employer could be especially at risk if it was informed of the behaviors and chose not to take action.”

Bullying also may lead to the more serious problem of workplace violence.

“Workplace aggression is on a continuum that starts with general unaccountability, moves into instability [and then] to conflict, to mild bullying, to daily bullying,” says Berry, who is currently working as a human systems integration analyst in Dayton, Ohio. What happens next is that the bully will bring in co-conspirators—a phenomenon Berry and others refer to as “mobbing,” where a group of people bully or exclude an individual. The goal is to create a power imbalance that will force a person to leave or create even more conflict. “That can lead to workplace violence as the bully becomes more aggressive,” she says.

Understanding what characteristics bully-prone industries share is a good way to identify common triggers for bullying behaviors so that any such behavior can be addressed before it blows up into something catastrophic.

Where Bullies Congregate

Bullying often occurs in workplace cultures where highly powerful people—or those with high-profile jobs—work alongside those with lower status. The health care, education and public service industries lend themselves to bullying behavior, according to a 2013 online survey of 401 respondents by the Workplace Bullying Institute, based in Bellingham, Wash.

One thing employees who work in health care and education may have in common is an altruistic streak. In the survey report’s conclusion, Gary Namie, the institute’s director, points out that those who are motivated to help others often become easy targets. “People entering those fields want to heal, help, teach, develop impressionable minds, and see the good in others,” he wrote. “While focused on the work, with their backs figuratively turned to the politics and abusers in the workplace, they bring a vulnerability to attack.”

Meanwhile, in the public service arena, the problem may be a lack of well-trained supervisors. As Namie wrote, “Managers lacking the interpersonal skills of listening, coaching, effective training and caring for workers tend to supervise aggressively to mask their incompetence.”

Bullying Behavior

A policy prohibiting bullying should list specific examples of unacceptable behavior, such as:

  • Constant and unfair criticism.
  • Excessive teasing.
  • Yelling, shouting and screaming.
  • Insults and behind-the-back put-downs.
  • Hostile glares and other intimidating gestures.
  • Malicious gossip.
  • Monopolizing supplies and other resources.
  • Aggressive e-mails or notes.
  • Overt threats, aggression or violence.

Source: Society for Human Resource Management.

Culture and work environments undoubtedly play strong roles in shaping employees’ behavior. “Bully-prone industries can be a result of the working conditions, the nature of people drawn to them or both,” says Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills, Calif., forensic psychiatrist who has testified in high-profile bullying cases. “For example, people who have a desire to bully are drawn to work in prisons, and the working conditions exacerbate their tendency to bully prisoners, who are easy prey.”

In the medical arena, certain subspecialties, such as orthopedic surgery, may attract individuals who feel the need to show dominance or bravado, Lieberman explains. “The long hours, little sleep and intense surgeries sometimes bring out the bullying of interns and residents by surgeons of higher standing.” 

Indeed, stress is a key trigger. People aren’t at their best when they are under too much pressure: They can become easily agitated or upset, overly sensitive to criticism or directives, impatient for results, and unforgiving of mistakes.

And you don’t have to be a surgeon to feel that strain. Those in the hospitality and service industries are often pushed to their limit as well, says Norbert “Bert” Alicea, vice president of employee assistance programs and work/life services at Health Advocate Inc., based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., which provides companies with benefits solutions.

“Servers often wait on three or four tables at a time, so if one table is demanding more time over others, this can create anxiety and stress,” he says. A supervisor might perceive that a server can’t handle the demands of the job like he or she would and might vent frustration on the server in insensitive and demanding ways, which could develop to bullying.

The Peter Principle

Bully-prone industries also tend to include many high-achievers and perfectionists—people who can’t or won’t tolerate others’ mistakes.

“These industries are prone to promoting their best and brightest into managerial jobs for which they’re not well-suited,” says Michael B. Spring, an associate professor of information science at the University of Pittsburgh and a former management training consultant.

“If they’re very good at what they do, they often get promoted to head nurses, assistant principals, sergeants on the police force,” he says. “And because they’re better than average, there’s a lack of tolerance for less-than-perfect behavior by subordinates.” At the same time, these individuals may be feeling ill at ease as they struggle to adapt to unfamiliar new roles. “First, they haven’t been trained to deal with someone who’s not as competent as they were,” Spring explains. “And second, they’re no longer doing what they were best at, and they’re not as happy.”

Alicea saw this dynamic in the sales industry, when a particular manager was often disrespectful to his administrative support team members, bullying them because he demanded constant excellence.

“If the team did not perform at his definition of 100 percent, he went ballistic,” Alicea says. “People are typically promoted due to technical expertise or longevity, but they may lack the emotional or interpersonal skills to be an effective leader.”

Organizations with rigid pecking orders—such as those in law enforcement, higher education and nursing—tend to be problematic as well. “There’s a huge amount of power struggle and competition and politicking,” says Joan Kingsley, a clinical and organizational psychotherapist in London and co-author ofThe Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture (Kogan Page, 2015). “[These industries] are full of red tape, they’re bureaucratic, and they’re hierarchical. Finally, it’s very hard in [these] systems to fire anyone because jobs tend to be protected by unions.”

Research indicates that bullying also tends to arise when workers in any industry become frustrated by inequity—in scheduling, assignments and opportunities for advancement. “Some people get more difficult assignments than others,” says Joy Longo, a registered nurse and professor at Florida Atlantic University, who wrote the American Nurses Association booklet Bullying in the Workplace: Reversing a Culture. “Some people are getting promotions, and others aren’t. That will contribute to bullying.”

Bullying is partly to blame for the high attrition rates at hospitals. About a third of those who depart their facility do so because of bullying or a toxic workplace, according to research by Berry, the Ohio analyst.

“Twenty-five to 45 percent will leave within the first 18 months,” she says. “Think of the cost-savings that could be realized if you improved the environment in which they work,” she says—which is change that could be effected through better onboarding, improved training for supervisors and other appropriate intervention by HR.

State of Denial

There are at least three ways HR professionals can address bullying: by adjusting workplace dynamics that incite it, by counseling the bully or by protecting the victim.

But protecting the victim can be harder than it seems. In most of the bullying scenarios Berry has encountered—including that of the young nurse who felt pressured to cancel his vacation—victims chose not to involve HR.

In a survey of 2,000 U.K. workers in August 2015, 58 percent said they had been victims of bullying or had witnessed others being bullied. Yet only about half of those victims or witnesses took action to try to stop the behavior. One in 10 feared they’d lose their job if they complained, and nearly 1 in 4 said it wasn’t their responsibility to report bullying.

Experts suggest that many workers also believe HR won’t do anything about bullying, especially if the culprit is a supervisor or someone who is highly valued by the company.

Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute has seen this play out with university research scientists who bring large grants to their departments.

“These can be extremely self-centered individuals willing to exploit others because of their inflated sense of self,” he says. “They have a vast pool of easily exploited, nonpolitical employees. And administrators have no power over this superstar, so they cower.”

Says Berry: “A lot of times [victims] believe HR is not their friend.” She counsels individuals to reconsider that perception, explaining that “if it’s not a toxic organization, HR is your friend. The problems need to be illuminated so the behavior can stop.”

Confront the Bully

Many bullies aren’t even aware that they’re bullies. “They just think that’s the way things are done,” says Tess Cacciatore, founder of the Global Women’s Empowerment Network, which advocates for abused women. “Most of the time, they really suffer from a huge lack of confidence and security.”

Longo, who teaches nursing students, recalls a manager who was astounded when HR confronted her about her behavior. She had no idea that people had perceived her that way.

After HR talked to her, “the turnaround was unbelievable,” Longo says. “Just bringing it to a person’s attention can make the bully aware that what she considered normal behavior isn’t acceptable.”

In cases where people are promoted to positions that make them unhappy, bullies are often miserable because they simply lacks the skills to do the job well, Spring says. Moreover, if bullies perceive subordinates as slackers, they may not know how to empathize with those they view as less competent. But with proper training, bullies can learn new ways of communicating.

As a first step, acknowledge the pressure employees face in a new position. “Understand that it’s a stressful situation for them to … watch someone who’s not as good at providing a service as they were,” Spring says. “The question to ask is, ‘How can we make your job more enjoyable by making you competent at helping others succeed?’ ”

Scrutinize Your Culture

In cases where bullying arises from a sense of unfairness, the remedy may be to take a hard look at how schedules, assignments and promotions are managed. “You need to pay attention to the dissatisfaction,” Longo says. “For instance, how is the schedule made? Who’s getting promoted, and how are they getting promotions?”

To convince leaders to address unfairness, it may be necessary to invoke the bottom line, says Yost of SHRM. “I have been around company leadership that has practiced a ‘motivate by fear or intimidation’ style of management,” he says. “I demonstrated that employees who were successful would only accept intimidation or fear as a motivation for a certain period. However, if they are good employees, they will likely have the confidence to seek opportunities elsewhere.”

It also makes sense to prevent someone with a bully-prone personality from moving into a managerial position in the first place.

“There needs to be a great investment in selection methods that assess people’s handling of difficult situations,” says Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SHRM’s senior vice president of knowledge development and a former organizational development specialist. Initiatives might include leadership development programs, behavioral interviews and role-playing exercises. While these practices can be expensive, “they are less costly than having to resolve a bad decision where bullying taints the culture of the organization,” Alonso says.

Document the Bullying

When coaching and confronting the bully fail to change that person’s ways, it’s up to HR to counsel victims and discipline the bully.

Start by ensuring that your organization has a detailed anti-bullying policy. It should define which behaviors qualify as bullying, clearly state that those behaviors won’t be tolerated and address repercussions for violations.

How specific should the policy be? Yost suggests prohibiting constant and unfair criticism; aggressive e-mails or notes; and actions that intimidate or undermine employees by demeaning their work standards, not giving them credit, setting them up for failure or continually reminding them of old mistakes.

If a complaint of bullying is made, begin gathering evidence, including witness statements. But know that if a witness reports the behavior, it might not be easy to get the victim to come forward.

“People who are bullied lose their confidence very, very quickly,” Kingsley says. “There’s a lot of paranoia that sets in, especially if a department manager doesn’t believe this is going on. As an HR manager, you have to encourage victims to keep a diary and gather evidence. You have to document each instance and be as factual as possible about what was said, when it was said, who was there.”

Once the bullying is documented, “the HR manager has to have some very tough conversations with the manager of the department and produce the evidence,” she says. If the department manager refuses to believe that bullying is happening, ask why the manager feels the need to defend the bully.

Finally, it’s up to those in HR to build solid relationships with leaders in all departments so that if a bullying situation arises, managers will trust what the HR professional brings to their attention.

“There’s a lot of mistrust of HR,” Kingsley says. “If you don’t have relationships, you don’t have trust, and then everything breaks down.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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