Fear, Intimidation, and … Work?! It’s not just the kiddos behaving badly

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Adults spend a lot of time talking about – and worrying about – child bullying. However, it might be worthwhile to look in the mirror. Workplace bullying is commonplace and has devastating results.

I have had the misfortune to witness bullying at work and to have experienced it myself. I’ve most definitely worked in what I’d label a “toxic” work environment. Indeed, I’ve described more than a few people I’ve known as “battered workers” as they exhibit many of the same emotional and physical effects as those experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV).

According to Human Resource professionals, between 35 to 50 percent of workers report having been bullied on the job. Perpetrators can be coworkers as well as supervisors. “Mobbing” – or ganging up to bully someone – is also occurring in the workplace. In a 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby, 62% of bullies were men and 58% of targets were women. However, women bullies target women in 80% of cases.

Whether it’s subtle character assassination or flagrant disrespect and even name calling, workplace bullying has many faces. I’ve watched those in supervisory positions scream at underlings and criticize good work. I’ve witnessed workers whose first knowledge that they were about to be fired was their jobs being posted online. Then they had to interview their replacements. The defeatism, exhaustion, and emotional stress of these constant assaults – and the uncertainty of when they’d reemerge – were hard to witness.

Workplace bullying has obvious, and not-so-obvious results. Physical, emotional, and financial harm are the most notable and worst effects of the problem for the victims. Less obvious are the economic costs, the effects on office morale, and worker effectiveness and efficiency. Workers who experience toxic workplaces use more sick time, potentially use more health care, and may underperform. Workers may also frequently change jobs, costing the organization both time and money. There are also potential legal ramifications and, less so but with the potential to change given the rise of social media, the prospect of bad PR. The recent curfuffle at NBC over Ann Curry’s treatment suggests that real – or perceived – ill treatment of workers may have significant effects on a company’s bottom line.

Then there are the workers who witness this environment. Even when they’re not the target, the potential to be the target weighs heavily on their minds. So too does the emotional toll of having to bear witness and not having the capacity to help. This is especially true when the bully is at the top of the pecking order. It’s a bigger, badder playground that can lead to financial ruin and professional Siberia. In other words, it’s a true nightmare, not just the social anxiety of a hormone-fueled teenager.

Addressing workplace bullying is complex and not a one-size-fits-all undertaking. Minimally, companies – both large and small – need to think about the issue and develop strategies to deal with it. Bullying strategies require good mechanisms for reporting, training, and response.

Importantly, managers and owners need to set the tone and lead by example. Many toxic workplaces exist because senior management has created an environment of fear and intimidation. Workers do what they need to in order to survive and some even thrive. But as Machiavelli once noted, there’s a fine line between love, fear, and hatred. Senior managers should ensure that they create an environment that’s worth working in, not only because it’s better for the bottom line. But also because it’s just the right thing to do.

Karla J. Cunningham, Ph.D. is a mom whose alter ego is a violence expert. She has worked in academics, government (law enforcement and intelligence), and at RAND. Karla contributes frequently to her blog – What Your Mother Hasn’t Told You About Safety – at and she tweets about safety issues at @CunninghamKarla.



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