Power Tripping

Hi internets, I know it’s been a while but life has been going on and it’s been busy so I know you’ll forgive my absence.

I thought I’d come back today with a piece on bullying in the workplace. Some of you may or may not have seen the recent Salon article, When Bullies Go To Work. which I think is a great platform for what I want to talk about here. I could barely get through the comments, many of which called the interviewees whiners, and I was surprised that this didn’t get a bit more play in social media land because I know a lot of you have experiences that relate to workplace bullying, either from colleagues or supervisors. Unfortunately…

“There’s a definite lack of awareness. People are very surprised when they think about these things happening in the workplace.” Yet it’s all around us –  a 2010 workplace bullying study found that 35 percent of workers say they have experienced bullying firsthand, and another 15 percent report witnessing it.

35%!! That’s a lot. That’s too much. That’s one in three of your coworkers.

In the aforementioned study, workplace bullying was defined as “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, & humiliation”. But statistics are hard to come by:

…because targets themselves don’t always connect the dots between their absenteeism-causing migraines and ulcers and their aggressive colleagues, but Dellasega says at least 5 percent of workers say they’ve deliberately not gone in to work because of stress there.

I know I’ve had friends who felt they could not handle going to their workplace either because they knew they were going to get abuse (I mean mental, not physical or sexual) from their boss or they felt so overwhelmed by their negative workplace culture.

The study showed that both men and women bully, but the majority of bullying is same-gender harassment, which is mostly legal according to anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies. Women target women. I’m surprised by this last stat. because my experiences and those of some of my peers suggests that bullying is pretty gender neutral and is primarily influenced and encouraged by office culture, not individuals. Salon seems to agree with me on that one (the culture part, not the gender thing):

Part of what makes workplace bullying so insidious is that it’s so deeply entrenched in the corporate cultures where it flourishes. It’s not just one jerk — it’s a whole department of sycophants and terrorized underlings. As Liza, who works in graphic design, says, “One of my bosses likes to throw paperwork on the floor so we have to get on our knees. I commonly see a reaction of, ‘That’s just how he is,’ or ‘He’s just having a bad day,’ when an incident occurs.” Namie says this is common. “The whole group adopts the practice out of survival and fear, and over time it becomes the norm and the bullying becomes institutionalized. It’s about loyalty,” he says. “Once you start promoting people for that kind of behavior, you’ve sent the message.”

I’d go a step further and say that workplace bullying, like all bullying, is about demonstrating power. If bullying has become the norm in an office culture then management and junior staff alike are trying to flex their muscles and show that they have some sense of power – this may not always be solely related to work, but rather, feeling powerless in other aspects of their lives as well.

One big challenge we have is how to combat this in workplace cultures that seem to promote bullying or ignore it when it’s clearly happening. What do you do if your HR person engages in bullying themselves? Who do you have to go to? If your boss is bullying you, you probably feel stuck! Sure you can complain to your fellow employees but then what!? Office cultures seem to have created systems in which young employees remain powerless (and not just against bullying, but also against all kinds of change). It may be easier to affect change if your bully is a peer but even then, if you’re new, how do you develop allies?

It’s unfortunate to me that the workplace has become, for some people, a war zone, filled with negativity, unnecessary obstacles, and cruelty.

What cultural factors have made this OK and how can young employees stop it from getting worse, or stop it from happening in the first place? You tell me.

*Also, did you know this is my 97th post? I bet you didn’t. 100 is a pretty big hallmark and you’re invited to pat me on the back about it*

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