Hon. Sue Pai Yang -
124 Halsey Street 2nd Fl.
Newark, NJ 07101
Standing Up to Workplace Bullying
Actual case: “Kurt” seemed the dream supervisor. He did everything senior management asked of him and more. He even showed up every Saturday at the CEO’s home and washed his car! You had to love him - and all the upper management did; except for that new kid with the MBA who started sniffing around his department. The new manager crunched some comparative numbers. He found that while Kurt’s target quotas were sometimes met, his department showed remarkably higher absenteeism and turnover rates than any in the plant. On talking with Kurt’s staff, the abysmal morale was evident. Antidepressants were being passed around like candy.
Kurt was a workplace bully, someone no business can afford. It may seem straight out of a “Dilbert” comic, but this little tidbit of office reality has become a crushing epidemic which companies are blithely ignoring at their peril. The on-the-job bully brings in a special brand of harassment, victimizing nonspecific, non-categorized employees. The victim is abused not because he is black, Moslem or she is a woman, but because she is handy and vulnerable. According to repeated surveys, 16 to 21 percent of all American workers claim to have experienced some sort of workplace bullying.
* Who’s a bully? Whatever happened to Flashman who bullied smaller youngsters in the English classic “Tom Brown’s School Days?” He grew up and lives in your office. Dr. Michael Greene whose Greene Consulting in Montclair specializes in dealing with violence, provides a profile. The bully at work is the ultimate ingratiator to those above. He makes himself invaluable by being a good drinking buddy or dazzling conversationalist with his superiors. This constant toadying is vital to the bully’s tenure, since all his actions kill off any chances of generating a solid, impressive production record.
Meanwhile, back in the protection of his own department, the bully vents all his rage and venom on those ranked beneath him. Generally, bullies fall into three types. First is the constant screamer who keeps his workers fearfully walking on eggshells. Second, writhes the smarmy snake who smears employees behind their backs and incites malicious interoffice warfare. Thirdly, comes the amok abuser who pushes employees around and/or constantly fires and suspends them for no reason. Look for the individual who is incessantly, irrationally dealing out humiliation, threats, verbal abuse, and even bruises. * Random targets. A survey of 1300 victims, taken by the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Washington, found the fair sex comparatively less than fair. 50 percent of workplace bullying was woman against woman, while only 30 percent were men bullying women. Men harassed men only a quarter as frequently as they harassed women (12 percent of the incidents;) and women bullied men the remaining eight percent. Interestingly, none of these 1300 cases indicated any bullying preference toward race, religion or gender. Bullies seek opportunity, much more than personalities. Once grown out of the schoolyard and now in a supervisory position, the bully has a whole crop of underlings from which to choose. After all, he can dangle the constant threat of job termination over the workers’ heads, while spreading his malice.
The average age for those complaining of workplace bullying is 41. Some say that the younger generation, though just as likely to be victimized, is less likely to put up with repeated harassment. Typically, instead of complaining, younger employees leave for less belligerent pastures.
* The corporate cost. Bullies block production. The equation is simple. If one man can produce a truly fabulous piece of software in three months, how much longer will it take him if he is screamed at, threatened, and baited into fighting once every two hours? The answer is never. This abuse will, in time, probably drive this potentially great employee into lateness, absenteeism, physical/mental illness, and perhaps drink. At the first opportunity he will quit, taking his talents to your competitor. The same scenario will probably prove true for the bully’s entire department. With the enormous absenteeism and turnover rate he engenders, it doesn’t take long before the production sags either in quality or quantity. So why do bullies last so long in the workplace? They create a myth. “He’s that indispensable jerk who really cracks the whip,” his supervisors say. On the surface it seems as if he’s driving for ever-higher standards. But in truth, work under such a tyrant is all stick and no carrot. Thus morale and production sinks ever lower. * Solutions. Weeding out these workplace vermin demands a two prong attack insists Greene. First, the company’s management must send the message that acts of bullying and turning a blind eye will not be tolerated. “Everyone in the plant must be aware of the direct method of reporting bullying - not just the victim, but those who witness it,” says Greene. “If witnesses are given a solution, they will no longer gawk as giggling enablers, but they can take part in stopping it.” Presumably, every company evaluates each department, and each project comparatively. During such assessments, it behooves managers to keep an eye on the absenteeism or turnover statistics. Also, confidential chats with individual department members can be revealing. Finally, brief seminars offered on bullying to all employees may not only ferret out problems, but will indicate management’s concern for workers and boost morale.
Secondly, the arm of the law in New Jersey is doing more to protect American companies and workers from the bullying threat. Recently, Judge Sue Pai Yang of the Department of Labor’s Compensation Court put through a landmark decision awarding a bullying victim in Revelo v City of Newark. “From unsafe gasses to fire hazards, we no longer allow unsafe gases and fire hazards and a physical environment that endangers individuals,” says Judge Yang. “The move to a psychologically safe workplace that avoids debilitating injury is merely the next, natural step.” For Yang, this step is not a big one. If an on-the-job bullying injury permanently harms a worker and destroys his ability of produce income, the victim deserves compensation.
New Jersey Assemblywoman Woman Linda Greenstein agrees and has recently sponsored “The Healthy Workplace Act,” designed to make employers more active in the anti-bullying campaign. (See Workplace Bullying - A Crime - link.) Not surprisingly, the response to Greenstein’s bill both from media and public has been overwhelming. This said, the law should tread lightly here. Virtually everyone of us has at one time been a bully and kicked the metaphorical cat. We also sometimes have been the cat well kicked. The goal must not be to tortify the workplace. Yet we morally and financially must eject those who make a career out of destroying workers and a productive work environment. In Thomas Hughes Novel “Tom Brown’s School Days,” the Headmaster advises young Tom, “Nothing breaks up a house like bullying. But bullies are cowards, so fight it through and you’ll be the better for it.” Hopefully new laws and companies’ zero-tolerance policies will arm employees with ways of fighting it through, rather than quitting.
Michael Greene heads Green Consulting in Montclair which specializes in preventing abuse and violence in the school and workplace, (email@example.com.) He has formerly served as executive director of the Violence Institute of New Jersey of the University of Dentistry and Medicine in New Jersey. (www.umdnj.edu/vinjweb/.)
Greene graduated from the New School in New York in l970 and received his graduate degree in developmental psychology from Columbia University.
Article Summary That whip cracking supervisor who constantly screams himself horse at the employees may be your company’s biggest bottleneck, rather than its golden boy producer. Consultant Michael Greene and Judge Sue Pai Yang explain how the national epidemic of bullying in the workplace injures us all.