When Bullying in the Workplace is Just a Thread Line Away from Policies

Think workplace bullying is restricted to acts of aggression? The behavior can be more subtle when the line between “taskmaster” and “bully”  becomes blurrier.

Workplace bullying—which can include fairly subtle behaviors such as constant criticism, personal putdowns, unreasonable expectations, persistent understaffing, and denial of opportunities, as well as more overt acts, like yelling and physical aggression—can have consequences to the victim that extend beyond the physical. It is even more devastating than sexual harassment, so says a review of 110 studies that compared the two kinds of negative behavior.

Bullied employees are more likely to quit their jobs, and they report being less satisfied with the relationship with their bosses (even if the bosses were not the source of the bullying). The same results apply to the phenomenon of “mobbing,” which is bullying by more than one person.

The role of the manager in either encouraging or squelching the culture of bullying should not be underestimated. Studies about the psychology behind bullying in the past 50 years have consistently demonstrated that a person in authority can wield strong influence over subordinates where aggression happens and that even non-bully individuals will tend to adopt aggressive acts if such behavior is modeled or condoned by an authority figure.

One of the issues that make workplace bullying so challenging for managers is that many of the mobbing behaviors are subtle that there are not enough grounds to take a legal step or a formal complaint within orgnizational policies to stop them. An example is an office group’s failure to invite a particular employee to join in an after-work outing. Another example is not including a particular staff in a team chat or conversation. These acts do not violate any law or policy, yet they can wreak havoc on an employee's ability to contribute to the betterment of the organization. Not being able to address bullying in the workplace, in the long term, leads to productivity losses, litigation, and increased turnover.

If bullying happens in the workplace, managers must look for ways to open communication lines for feedback. Unless victim employees feel that they are heard, the organization will pick up negative consequences here and there.