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Still Wearing the 'Kick Me' Sign


by Laurie Meyers

Bullying isn't confined to childhood—it also happens in the workplace, where it's garnering more research attention.

By Laurie Meyers

APA Monitor Staff

July 2006, Vol 37, No. 7

The bully has left the playground and moved to the cubicle next door.

Bullying is a common, and in many cases accepted, part of work. Many of the behaviors resemble school-yard battles of old, but the stakes-health, well-being and employment status-are much higher.

There is no playground monitor to intervene.

However, employees, companies, researchers and even legislative bodies are becoming aware that this part of the culture of work needs to change. There is increasing evidence that it's bad for your health (see "Worrying for a living"), that certain factors breed it (see "Bullying stems from fear, apathy") and that it can be deterred (see "Banishing bullying"). But in order to stop the behavior, researchers agree that they first need to define it.

By any other name

Incivility. Verbal abuse. Psychological aggression. Mobbing. They are all different names for a relatively wide range of behaviors.

Bullying research in still a nascent field. Much of the research started in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and Canada, but there is also an increasing focus in the United States. In 2003, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) used data from surveys administered by the National Opinion Research Center to determine the extent of bullying in U.S. workplaces. According to Paula Grubb, PhD, the lead investigator, 24 percent of surveyed companies reported some degree of bullying in the last year. Currently, NIOSH is evaluating additional survey data from 2004.

Because the research is relatively new, there has been some disagreement on what qualifies as bullying, and what to call it.

Incivility is "low intensity, deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target and which violates the norms of respect," as defined by Lynne M. Andersson, PhD, and Christine Pearson, PhD, in the Academy of Management Review (Vol. 24, No. 3, pages 452-471). However, some researchers, such as social psychologist Gary Namie, PhD, director of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Wash., believe that bullying includes intent to harm, whereas incivility consists of merely discourteous behavior. Namie defines bullying as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more persons, manifested in one or more ways: verbal abuse, threatening and intimidating conduct (verbal or nonverbal, nonphysical) that interferes with work and undermines legitimate business interests."

Charlotte Rayner, PhD, MBA, a human resource management professor at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, adds that bullyingis as much about what people don't do, such as excluding targets from meetings, withholding information or leaving them off an important e-mail, as what they do, such as yelling, name-calling, making threatening statements, micromanaging or undermining somebody's reputation. She also believes intent isn't necessary. Sometimes bullies don't realize they are bullies, but the behavior is still harmful, she explains. A study of 5,000 people in the United Kingdom, sponsored by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation in 2000, showed that even if the victims don't recognize that they are being bullied, their mental health is still affected, says Helge Hoel, one of the study authors and a business and organizational psychology professor at the University of Manchester. A defining feature of bullying, Hoel asserts, is negative behavior that people feel unable to defend against or control.

In a 1998 study in the Journal of Emotional Abuse (Vol. 1, No. 1, pages 85-115), Loraleigh Keashly, PhD, a Canadian psychologist who now teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit, identified seven key components of bullying, or as she defined it, emotional abuse. They include behaviors that are:

  • Verbal and nonverbal (excluding physical contact).

  • Repetitive or patterned.

  • Unwelcome and unsolicited by the target.

  • Violations of a standard of appropriate conduct toward others.

  • Harmful or cause psychological or physical injury to the target.

  • Intended to harm or controllable by the actor.

  • Exploiting of the actor's position of power over the target.

A real concern

Researchers do agree that because bullying is so common, many people don't realize its harmful effects. Yelling and verbal abuse may be written off as tough-if unpleasant-management. Micromanaging may appear to others as an employee failing to meet expectations. And ostracism may seem like personality conflict.

Targets of bullying may even start to believe they are somehow at fault, says Namie. Bystanders often dismiss the behavior or don't want-or dare-to get involved. In workplaces that allow bullying behavior to go on, management is unlikely to intervene. In many cases, employees are told to work it out for themselves, adds Namie.

Targets often may be encouraged to think that the bullying is all "in your head," but the stakes are very real. University of Bergen psychologist Ståle Einarsen, PhD, is a leading bullying researcher who has intervened with severely bullied employees so disabled they are unable to work. While repairing these victims' mental health is difficult, but possible, he says, it's even more difficult getting them to go back to work-even at a different job. In his work as a victims' advocate, Namie has even come across cases in which the victim commits suicide.

Even when the effects are not that extreme, researchers agree that bullying is harmful to the health and well-being of victims, organizations and society, likening it to sexual or racial harassment. Unlike these forms of harassment, however, general bullying is not prohibited by law in many places.

Legal loopholes

The province of Quebec in Canada and some countries such as France, Sweden and Norway have antipsychological harassment laws, but there are none in the United States. Even members of classes protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or by the Americans with Disabilities Act do not usually have legal recourse against general bullying. Unless the bullying is directly tied to a person's protected status, such as gender or race, it's not considered discrimination, says David Yamada, JD, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston and an expert in employment and labor law. Tying bullying to sexual or racial discrimination can be very difficult, he adds.

Yamada has written antibullying legislation and is working with the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute to get the legislation passed in various U.S. states. Called the Healthy Workplace Bill, it seeks to give severely bullied employees who have suffered concrete psychological, physical or economic effects the right to sue the bully or the company. Since a company would only be liable if it failed to stop the bullying, this would give employers a legal incentive to respond to employee abuse, Yamada argues.

He believes the bill would give severely bullied employees a legal claim without opening the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits. Although the bill is being considered in nine states-New York, Kansas, Missouri, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma and California-Yamada thinks that it may be years before a law is passed in any U.S. jurisdiction.

"I think we're where we were with sexual harassment law 30 years ago: The term was just beginning to be used, but people didn't think in terms of legal protections until they understood how harmful it could be," he says.

Charlotte Rayner believes the key is to see bullying as a kind of human rights issue. "It's about dignity at work," says Rayner. "We need to say that we're going to treat everyone decently. Period."