A co-worker who "forgets" to share important information, a clique that spreads gossip, or a boss who humiliates subordinates are definitions of a hostile work environment. Along with intimidation, threats, and sabotage, they are also examples of workplace bullying. "It's a form of workplace harassment that has a profound effect on the target," says Gary Namie, PhD, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute and co-author of The Bully-Free Workplace. "It's cruelty, plain and simple."
The behavior can take several forms. One bully might focus on a target, or a group might single out a co-worker. While bullying is often done face-to-face, more technology at work means that office cyberbullying is also on the rise.
Bullies have different reasons for their behavior, from looking to get ahead at work by sabotaging colleagues to attempting to control their targets. Whatever the reason, the workplace suffers from lower productivity, absenteeism, and high turnover.
People who are bullied have stress that can leave them unable to concentrate, putting their jobs at risk, Namie says. The psychological distress is linked to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Research shows that bullied workers can also have sleep disturbances and even thoughts of suicide.
"The problem is not only that bullying creates a hostile work environment," Namie says. "It's a serious public health issue."
What can be done?
Creating workplace anti-bullying policies and training staff about behaviors that constitute bullying (similar to sexual harassment training) are effective prevention strategies, according to a 2016 literature review published in the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management.
Namie believes that people bullied at the office can benefit from counseling or group therapy. The most important thing to remember, he says, is: "You are not alone, you did not cause this, and help is available."
BULLYING BY THE NUMBERS
Survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute
- 56% of bullies are in positions of authority; just 18% of people who are bullied are bullied by peers.
- 37 million Americans have been targets of abusive conduct at work. More than 15 million have witnessed workplace bullying.
- 60% of workplace bullies are men; 60% of targets of workplace bullying are women.
- 11% of bullies were punished but kept their jobs; 15% quit or were terminated, per a 2014 study.