Bullying in the Workplace

Let's talk about an insidious problem in the workplace nowadays: the problem of bullying and mobbing!

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Organizational bullying and mobbing have been well-studied since the 1970’s. Closely tied in with the constructs of incivility and harassment, bullying and mobbing represent a very harmful expression of human interactions in the work setting.

Generally defined as long-lasting hostile, humiliating, and intimidating behaviors meant to psychologically harm the target, bullying and mobbing leave deep scars and a trail of tears for the victims (Branch et al., 2013). Cumulative effects of being bullied and mobbed invariably lead to profound losses for the employees on the receiving end, as well as the organizations that employ them. (Nielsen et al., 2015).

One’s work and professional identity are very important dimensions of one’s being, and any damage to such represents a loss of identity to a large extent (Duffy & Sperry, 2007). Employees who are subjected to bullying and mobbing may thus experience a complete loss of control over their lives, due to a profound adverse impact on their identity, health, career path, family, recreation.

There is a spillover of the severe anxiety and sadness to one's life outside of work. It's hard to be emotionally available to one's significant other, children, friends, etc., when one's emotional resources are depleted while coping with the onslaught of a bully's evil agenda at work. In severe cases of bullying and mobbing, one goes on to suffer long-term adverse effects.

There is a strong relationship between organizational bullying and mobbing with employee psychological and physical wellbeing. Symptomatology-wise, targets of bullying and mobbing often report insomnia, anxiety, depressed mood, apathy, fatigue, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, social withdrawal and isolation, flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating, crying, and hopelessness. Sadly, there are some cases of suicide as well.

At the same time, the effects may be physical: sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, experiencing gastrointestinal distress, ulcers, IBS, dizziness, hypertension, chest pains, heart attacks, strokes, inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.

Sick leaves due to bullying are common, while HR thinks they just have an employee out with a cold. Substance abuse is also very common in these scenarios, as seeking to anesthetize one's emotional pain is a natural thought when in daily distress from bullying. As a clinician, I get to see the trajectory of bullying leading up to alcohol or any number of substances on the job as part of my daily patient intake profiles.

Most organizations scramble to recover from low morale, a “brain-drain”, loss of creativity, disengagement, employee sick time off spent attending to the psychological or physical ill-effects, legal defense costs, and the costs of advertising, recruiting, interviewing, and re-staffing to help close the receding ranks.

In some severe cases, neither the organization, nor the affected employees completely recover from the damage sustained to their reputations. Some large media companies, for instance, have been all over the news this year due to bullying and harassment scandals, now seeking to disavow their high-ranking bullies and harassers who were once in positions of power. Can they completely erase or rewrite the history, though?

Large or small, such organizations run the risk of being wiped out by competition that may have a superior anti-harassment policy that is not only posted in the cafeteria but activated on a daily basis from the offices of its highest-ranking executives who set an example of justice and fair treatment for all.

While bullying and mobbing do not necessarily involve perpetrators with a defined psychopathological profile, there is an increased incidence of narcissistic employees as bullies, indoctrinating those who work there with a perverted brand of interacting, and occasionally those that fit psychopathy spectrum criteria. (Boddy, 2006, 2011).

Both “everyday” bullies and full-blown narcissists tend to defy ethical standards of doing business, established social values, norms of civility and morality, thereby representing a departure from company mission, vision and ethics (very humane and lofty at inception).

Bullies hijack their organizational unit with their own agenda of self-elevation and psychological subjugation of those they perceive as their targets, destroying employee wellbeing and organizational morale in the process.

Bullying zaps both optimal cognitive functioning needed to "just" do the job right, but also renders any creative effort null and void, as the brain churns on empty trying to process what is going on. (Porath & Pearson, 2013)

It is not easy for victimized employees to reach out and talk to others about the hurt and sadness inflicted by the bully. HR departments or EAP networks are not the first thoughts that the victims have when in the throes of the abuse.

Most companies do have robust EAP resources, and workers need to be informed of the exact protections they have while accessing the resource. There needs to be a discussion around the specific confidentiality laws that are on their side. HR practitioners would benefit from disseminating EAP-related brochures to where they are easy to find at work. Calling and setting up appointments should also be an easy process for someone who is emotionally wiped out by the psychological onslaught of bullies at work.

If employers and HR departments are earnest in their effort to gather pertinent information and do something about a maladaptive organizational climate that supports bullying, then surely new ways of gathering data about the real, not presumed, organizational climate would spring up via a creative and collaborative process involving all employees.

References

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Management Decision, 44(10), 1461-1475.

Boddy, C.R. (2011). Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace. Journal of Business Ethics, 367-379.

Branch, S., Ramsay, S., & Barker, M. (2013). Workplace Bullying, Mobbing and General Harassment: A Review. International Journal of Management Reviews, 15, 280–299.

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Empathy and Narcissism as Moderators of Ethical Decision Making in Business

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Nielsen, M. B., Nielsen, G. H., Notelaers, G., Einarsen, S. (2015). Workplace Bullying and Suicidal Ideation: A 3-Wave Longitudinal Norwegian Study. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 23-28.

Porath, C., & Pearson, C. (2013). https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility

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