What is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is like bullying on the playground except that it occurs in the workplace. It usually involves verbal comments and incidents that are intended to hurt, harass, isolate, intimidate, or humiliate a person. It is not new but has become what some have called a silent epidemic because it is happening frequently but isn’t always reported. It is estimated that as many as one in every six workers is bullied at work and it occurs more frequently than sexual harassment. Bullying creates a horrible, hostile and poisonous work environment that leads to severe problems.

Bullying can be obvious and subtle and may take the form of any one or more of these behaviours:

  • spreading malicious, untrue rumours, gossip, or innuendoes
  • excluding or isolating someone
  • intimidating a person
  • undermining or interfering with a person’s work
  • threatening
  • restricting former responsibilities
  • changing work requirements
  • setting impossible deadlines
  • withholding information
  • providing erroneous information
  • making offensive jokes
  • pestering, spying or stalking
  • not providing sufficient work
  • swearing, yelling or being rude
  • constant unwarranted criticism
  • blocking applications for training, leave, awards or promotion

It is very important to understand that the people who are bullied are not to blame. The victims or targets are usually highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular. The reason why they have been singled out for this upsetting and unfair treatment is due to the needs and personalities of the persons who are doing the bullying.

Ken Westhues, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo is survivor of academic mobbing (bullying in universities) and has become a recognized expert. He has developed this checklist of indicators.

  1. By standard criteria of job performance, the target is at least average, probably above average.
  2. Rumours and gossip circulate about the target’s misdeeds: “Did you hear what she did last week?”
  3. The target is not invited to meetings or voted onto committees, is excluded or excludes self.
  4. Collective focus on a critical incident that “shows what kind of person they really are”.
  5. Shared conviction that the target needs some kind of formal punishment, “to be taught a lesson”.
  6. Unusual timing of the decision to punish apart from the annual performance review.
  7. Emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications.
  8. Formal expressions of collective negative sentiment toward the target. A vote of censure, signatures on a petition, meeting to discuss what to do about the target.
  9. High value on secrecy, confidentiality, and collegial solidarity among the bullies.
  10. Loss of diversity of argument, so that it becomes dangerous to speak up for or defend the target.
  11. Adding up the target’s real or imagined venial sins to make a mortal sin that cries for action.
  12. The target is seen as personally abhorrent with no redeeming qualities; stigmatizing, exclusionary labels are applied.
  13. Disregard of established procedures as the bullies take matters into their own hands.
  14. Resistance to independent outside review of sanctions imposed on the target.
  15. Outraged response to any appeals for outside help the target may make.
  16. Bullies’ fear of violence from target, target’s fear of violence from bullies, or both.

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