Bullying in the Workplace

There’s a lesson in the news about alleged harassment of players on the Miami Dolphins soccer team: Bullying is not just about school-age children or athletes. It is rampant in many workplaces, regardless of industry.

According to the Bellingham, Washington-based Workplace Harassment Institute, a third of those surveyed say they have been bullied at work. Half of the organizations surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported incidents of bullying at their workplaces. And it’s usually not from that proverbial bad boss we all want to complain about: 82 percent of workplace bullying incidents were peer-to-peer.

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The problem takes many forms and shapes. It can be verbal abuse by a co-worker, such as swearing and intimidating, sarcastic comments, or relentless teasing. It could be someone taking credit for your work or trying to make you look incompetent. If the problem is the boss of storage units near you, bullying can mean yelling, constant criticism, creating impossible expectations, and changing those expectations at the last minute to fail.

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And yes, bullying happens through technology, like Facebook or other social networks. According to the SHRM survey, this guy accounted for about one in five incidents.

It may surprise you to learn that workplace bullying is not really illegal (although legislation has been proposed in 25 states). So talking can be tricky. Who are you talking to: the bully, the boss, or the HR people? What are the possible repercussions of talking?

Here are five moves you can make to handle a difficult situation at work.

  1. Evaluate the situation
    Take a self-examination to make sure your side of the street is clean. Is your work really top notch? Is your attitude positive? Being able to answer yes will be helpful if you make a complaint public.

Consider if you are doing something to cause the misbehavior. Accept it, you might have some responsibility. Make sure you are not being too thin about things that you should probably let fall off your back.

Another question to consider is whether someone else is receiving the same rough treatment.

If you need to let off steam or get advice, be discreet and talk to someone who is not connected to your workplace. You don’t want to be the one feeding the rumor mill.

“Choose your moments carefully,” says George Schofield, employment expert and author of After 50 It’s Up to Us. “Decide when you should defend yourself and when it’s just not worth it.” (Turning out not to report is a common decision: About 43 percent of bullying victims said they didn’t report their bullying to anyone in the organization, according to the SHRM survey.)

  1. Document it
    Write what happens: time, dates, and places. This newspaper should detail the specific volatile behavior and give an explanation of what started it and its recommendations on how it would be best handled next time, says Schofield: “A list of complaints alone will not suffice.” Keep your record stored in a safe place, such as a home computer instead of a work computer.
  2. Talk to the stalker
    If and only if you feel safe and physically safe, have an individual conversation with the harasser. Be positive and do your best to be polite. Calmly explain that it is not okay to treat it this way. The person may not be aware that what he or she is doing bothers them and they will apologize and back off. You will need some backbone here. But it is not in your job description to accept rude behavior or irrational job demands.
  3. Take your complaint to a higher powerBullies can be stubborn and irrational, so you may have to resort to big guns. Your first line of defense is to speak to your manager, assuming he or she is not to blame. But you may have to go to human resources.

Many employers are aware that bullying in the workplace can affect morale and boost employee turnover.Finally, ask yourself if the problem started when you reached “a certain age.” If it is related to age, you will have special rights under federal law.