Washington State Department of Labor & Industries reports that 47 million American workers (around 46%) say they’ve personally contended with workplace bullying within the previous year; 15 million (13%) suffered from it at least once weekly. Insulting, harassing, and abusive peers often come stereotypically slapped as denizens of the junior high and high school hallways, but such cruelty extends well into the college and career years. Unfortunately, societal perceptions — not to mention certain facets of corporate culture — render it difficult for victims to properly discuss and curtail the pain. Many fear judgment, firing, or other shapes of retaliation just for merely speaking up or defending themselves. From boardroom to mailroom, employees who spend their days in an office setting should familiarize themselves with the symptoms of office bullying. HR professionals and anyone in a leadership position must especially pay attention to the following signals that something needs fixing for a safer, happier, and far healthier environment.
One strategy office bullies typically utilize involves undermining the good things their coworkers contribute to projects — and the company as a whole. Healthy individuals celebrate what their contemporaries accomplish; more aggressive (to put it nicely) types prefer channeling their own insecurities into their interactions, belittling or outright insulting more successful types. If an office seems unsupportive or nobody takes any sort of pride in producing quality work, a bully might be to blame. Either that or an egregiously impersonal corporate culture. One of the two.
Anxiety and even cardiovascular disease plague bullying victims, although obviously other factors such as genetics and lifestyle can also play a role. Forbes noted that 45% of employees on the receiving end of workplace harshness suffer beneath one or more physiological symptoms as a direct result of their conditions. HR professionals, managers, and anyone else possessing the authority and resources to address the issue might want to keep their eyes peeled for an outbreak of nervous behaviors if they suspect a bully is underfoot.
Nobody enjoys abuse (save for sadomasochists in controlled situations, but that’s another article), and workers shouldn’t be expected to just keep taking it if the pay is right. Just like back in junior high and high school, victims will prefer anything putting space between themselves and their tormenters, even if it means compromising their own output. Diligent workers can suddenly transmogrify into the corniest of flakes should an office bully start heaping all their dysfunctions onto them. Along with a shift in attitudes, declines in productivity and availability signify that someone skulks the office with a poor attitude and takes it out on others.
Recipients of workplace bullying don’t have to quit or stay away from the office entirely to show signs of mental, emotional, and physical wear and tear. At their own desks, victims might grow more taciturn with the hopes that laying low might deflect harm. Adults especially wind up crushed beneath mindsets declaring they should “just get over it” or “stand up for themselves already!” — and, in the case of sexual harassment, “dress differently!” So thanks to the lack of sympathy, perceived or otherwise, those who genuinely need to talk about the issue to their employers sadly don’t. They find it easier (and less drama-filled) to just stay inside themselves.
Office bullies are kind of like the Borg; they quite enjoy assimilating and swelling their ranks, because misery, company, and all that. Victims whose reactions don’t involve cutting themselves off in some fashion might wind up perpetuating the problem by acting like abusive head cases themselves. Alongside anxiety symptoms, workplaces can also experience an outbreak of hurt feelings, marginalization, or worse with the originating party at the center of it all.
Bad days happen to everyone, so a little curtness and snippery from coworkers is natural every once in a while. Crossovers into bully territory come when this attitude persists well beyond normal crankiness and stress. These individuals perpetually steal ideas, throw down insulting language, gossip, and display other self-centered, if not outright sociopathic, actions. One must also remain mindful of the difference between genuine critique meant to improve quality from an aloof superior and a serious socialization issue that needs immediate quelling.
When someone at work starts laying on the bullying, his or her subjects might tend to start harping on the problem at hand, to the detriment of private and personal time. Again, obsessing over the normal pressures of work and the occasional bad day or week doesn’t necessarily equate to bullying. But when one person’s particularly astringent words or deeds start reigning supreme upstairs, that might indicate that HR needs to step in and get the perpetrator in question the appropriate mental health services. Dealing with their barrage of bullpucky in the office is bad enough — they shouldn’t have to invade mindspace while at home, too.
All work environments have their little jokes, and all require valid critique in order to grow and thrive. “Valid,” of course, being the operative adjective here. Because bullies don’t actually give a fig about their victims actually learning something, their slippery stream of verbal or written diarrhea never adds qualifiers meant to genuinely better a coworker’s output. Balanced assessments, such as performance reviews, temper the negatives with positives, so don’t take abuse as an honest look at responsibilities and work habits in need of a-fixin’.
Not every office sticks to stringent corporate cultural mores, obviously, but those for whom winning and profits exist as far greater priorities than health and safety tend to entertain a higher rate of bullies. Likewise, more competitive, cutthroat atmospheres act as most excellent conduits for position-jockeying idea-stealing, backbiting, and all the other “lovely” hallmarks of caring more about personal glory than teamwork. Authority figures in these environments tend to dismiss brutal methods as the sign of “a real go-getter” when they aren’t actively rewarding them, so even overt bullying stays unchecked. Healthy offices value the human as much as the fiscal, and take an active interest in everyone’s safety and well-being.