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Study calls out workplace bullies

December 03, 2006

Bullies are something most people hope they leave behind on the childhood playground. Unfortunately, those bullies grow up, taking their abusive behavior to the workplace, where they can create war zones for their co-workers.

In a study published in Management Communication Quarterly, bullied employees explain their experiences in emotional language that illustrates the depth of their mistreatment.

Adult bullying at work can include a variety of tactics or negative acts including screaming, excessive criticism, spreading rumors, the “silent” treatment and exclusion from meetings and gatherings. It can be peer-to-peer or perpetrated by a supervisor. Similar to the playground variety, the bully leaves the victim feeling stressed, fearful and abused.

“Many people can tell you they know bullies at work – and many have been targeted themselves -– but few people truly understand the psychological and physical damage that results from these relationships,” says lead author Sarah Tracy, associate professor in ASU's Hugh Downs School of Communication. “It is very difficult for the targets of bullies to put into words their experiences, and when they do they are often seen as disgruntled employees or as being over-sensitive.”

In fact, 25 percent to 30 percent of U.S. employees are bullied and emotionally abused sometime during their work histories. This mistreatment can cost employers, as stressed employees are more likely to be ill, less productive and likely to quit. Perceptions and reports of unfair treatment also are precursors of workplace aggression, violence and sabotage.

Workplace bullying, by definition, is not explicitly connected to demographic markets such as sex or race. It also is noted by its duration and persistence. There are no legal sanctions in the United States , although there are in other countries, such as Canada .

Tracy, along with co-authors Jess Alberts, ASU professor of communication, and Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of New Mexico , conducted the study to better understand how workplace bullying affects the targets, as well as the language used to express emotions and experience. What they learned could help managers better recognize, understand and stop these negative interactions.

“Identifying the effects of adult bullying is an important step in persuading organizational policy makers to pay attention to the phenomenon,” Alberts says. “As little research has been done on the emotional aspects of bullying, we set out to answer the question, ‘What does it feel like to be bullied?'”

The researchers have conducted a nationwide survey that examines the prevalence and practices of bullying and have interviewed more than 50 targets or witnesses of workplace bullying in a variety of industries, including service and sales, education and construction.

What they discovered is that the targets of bullies see themselves as vulnerable children, slaves, prisoners, animals and heartbroken lovers. Their defense tactics included trying to “tune out” the bully or “fly under the radar.” Many blamed themselves, wondering what they had done to bring the bullying on themselves.

“People often can't recognize the difference between a tough boss or a bully until they become the target,” Tracy says. “Co-workers, in fact, often blame the target for not speaking up. Our society sees victims as weak, so the focus is usually on getting rid of the weak employee than it is on getting rid of the bully. Bullies are often good at ‘managing up,' so the organization doesn't see the problem.”