Dr. Santo Marabella

By Dr. Santo D. Marabella

With special permission from Dr. Santo Marabella and the Reading Eagle, we re-publish this timely and extremely insightful commentary on identifying and addressing workplace bullying.  

Think bullying stops after high school? Think again. Bullying isn’t just a school problem, it’s a social problem found everywhere, including the workplace. In fact, the Workplace Bullying Institute reports that in 2010 about 35 percent of employees in the U.S. had been or are currently being bullied. That’s more than one-third of employees.

Let’s take a closer look at workplace bullying and what can be done to minimize and eventually eliminate bullying at work.

To really understand the issue, we need to be open to seeing bullying differently than we previously may have thought. A team of colleagues and I presented a symposium on bullying to 200 social-work practitioners and agency leaders at University of Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice in March. We had nine presenters, including practitioners and researchers, but also bullies and victims of bullying. Here is what we learned.

First, bullying is a pattern of harassment or incivility that is as disempowering to the bully as it is to the victim. Second, the more attention and resources we invest in the bully, the better our chance for eliminating this behavior. Third, bullying is a social problem, not a rite of passage, that occurs across the lifespan and victimizes kids, adults and the elderly. Fourth, bullying stops when people start speaking up.

What does bullying look like in the workplace? It may surprise you that most workplace bullies are bosses, and most victims are workplace “stars,” the most popular or respected employees. Consider that these types of employees pose the greatest threat to the incompetent or insecure bullying boss. And, part of the reason workplace bullying may be so pervasive is that employees’ fears of losing their job in this market is stronger than the anxiety and stress caused by being bullied.

In case you’re worried that I’m giving carte blanche to employees who want to misrepresent their strict or stern boss as a bully, I offer this distinction. Srini Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons To Overcome Fear,” states that the difference between a stern person and a bullying boss lies in their intentions. The strict boss acts for the good of the company and/or the employee, while the bullying boss is most concerned with his own welfare and interests. Pillay elaborates on the differences by pointing out that a bullying boss is aggressive, overcompensates for his own lack of esteem and is prone to humiliate.

Workplace bullying can manifest itself in many forms. It can involve verbal (ridiculing or maligning a person), physical (pushing, shoving or threatening physical assault), gestural (nonverbal glances to scare) and exclusionary tactics (not inviting a person to a relevant business meeting).

What can we do? I offer a number of recommendations.

I am reminded of a consulting project I did for Lucent Technologies in 2000 related to workplace violence, a possible outcome of workplace bullying. Even though the firm is no longer in business, client confidentiality precludes me from revealing any specific data about the project. But, I can say that Lucent impressed me for this reason. It was proactive in dealing with workplace violence. It engaged me to explore the issue with employees, not as a reaction to any particular incident, but as a strategy for preventing violence from occurring and for managing any incidents, if they did occur.

This is my first recommendation. Be proactive. Have a plan before you have a problem.
Next, establish a written policy of zero tolerance. In the policy, state that bullying is forbidden, describe bullying behaviors relevant to your workplace and be clear that this policy applies to all employees. Then post it on your website and share it, using the media your company uses to communicate important information.

Third, be sure you have an organizational culture that supports and encourages enforcement. In other words, if you expect employees to report bullying — theirs or incidents they observe — you can’t dismiss, diminish or, worst of all, penalize them for doing so. Create a safe way for employees to report bullying they have experienced or witnessed.

Fourth, if bullying does occur, pay attention to and address the needs of the bully as well as the victim. Am I suggesting that we get the bully therapy or counseling? Maybe. In most cases, it may not be appropriate for an employer to require an employee to get help. But, in my opinion, facilitating opportunities for personal growth and development, including anger management classes, counseling, workshops, etc., is well within the purview of a company’s responsibilities to its employees.

Some readers may be concerned that I have too much empathy for the bully. As one who was bullied in school, it is personally challenging to endorse a strategy of care and support for the bully. However, I know that people who are free from their demons and insecurities do not bully. By “free,” I don’t mean without impact, just that they are not dominated or controlled by them. If we can help the bully become stronger than his demons, we have a good chance of helping him not bully.

Fifth, if you are victimized or witness bullying, by all means speak up. I understand that someone who is a victim of bullying may feel embarrassed or stigmatized by having to admit and report this. And I know there are many disincentives, such as being ostracized or demeaned — also a form of bullying — for speaking up about bullying you witness or know exists. The power of changing behavior begins, or never occurs, because of one person’s choice to take a stand.

Finally, get outside help from reputable sources if you need it. There are many good sources of information and resources available for understanding and stopping workplace bullying. The ones I most recommend are the Workplace Bullying Institute (www.workplacebullying.org ) and the Center for Workforce Studies of the National Association of Social Workers (workforce.socialworkers.org).

Managers and employees have a clear choice: Stand by, observe and pity, or step in, speak up and stop. The first choice perpetuates oppression in the workplace. It defends bullying. The second choice empowers and promotes dignity and respect in the workplace. It defends individual freedom. There are no convenient loopholes or gray areas to hide behind in this business scenario.

So, whose side are you on?

Dr. Santo D. Marabella is a professor of management at Moravian College and president of Marabella & Associates, a management-consulting practice for nonprofits and businesses.  This article was originally published in the Reading Eagle on June 26, 2012

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