Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Bully at Work

I remember being the target of a bully when I was in elementary school. I remember everything about the girl...her name, how she used to catch me on the playground when I was jumping rope and make her nasty comments to me.

I can recall with equal clarity the time I was bullied on the job. I remember the continual stress of facing the man every day, the pitying looks from co-workers, the fact that I eventually left the job because I couldn't stand it any more.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvick, an assistant professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and an expert on workplace bullying, says my recollections and feelings about being bullied are typical of others who have had similar experiences.
"It can remain really fresh in a person's mind for a long, long time," she says. "It's something you don't forget."

Further, she notes that workplace bullying is difficult to cope with "because our identities are inextricably linked to what we do," and bullies are striking at the heart of who we believe ourselves to be.

In her study of workplace bullying, Lutgen-Sandvick found that while bullying can take place anywhere, certain professions seem to have more incidents of the behavior. Included: government/public administration, health care and high-end restaurants.

According to research, both men and women can be bullies. “Bullying is a silent epidemic that affects one in six workers,” says Gary Namie, a workplace-bullying expert. “It is witnessed by nearly 80 percent of workers who don’t do anything about it. It’s a dirty little secret.”

Who is most likely to become the target of a bully? Namie says targets often have a strong sense of equity, justice and integrity and a very strong belief in what they believe to be right and wrong. Bullies are the opposite – they feel inadequate even though they strut around like peacocks. They are secretly intimidated by the target’s intelligence, creativity and confidence. In order to deal with what they perceive to be a threat, bullies begin spreading rumors and innuendo about the target and may try to sabotage work.

As Namie says, bullies often target the most talented in the workplace because “the dolts don’t threaten anybody.”

That’s why if you’re talented and creative and have been bullied once, chances are good it could happen again.

“The targets of bullies often are people who are strong and independent and talented and believe they can tough it out,” Namie says. “But once the bullying starts, most can only stay 16.5 months because it costs them their health.”

What are some behaviors that may prompt a bully to make you a target? Research shows that making statements where you put yourself down such as, “I’m bad with computers – I’m so dumb,” or “You guys should just go on without me because I’m no help and I’ll just slow you down,” put a bully on alert. At the same time, behaviors that may betray a lack of confidence such as talking too slow, (which allows a bully to interrupt) or too fast (betraying nervousness), also attract a bully’s notice.

The non-verbal cues also play a role: Bullies look for those who don’t walk confidently with head held high, or those who fail to use gestures to emphasize a point as if they’re afraid to call attention to themselves. Bullies also will test you by invading your personal space and seeing whether you put them back in their place.

Namie adds that bullies also are lazy and look for easy marks. That’s why they often will try their intimidation on new employees because they know the vulnerabilities that go along with being the new kid on the block. Still, research shows that some 75 percent of the workforce does not tolerate being controlled by another person, and a bully will back off when resistance is shown – even if it’s a new employee.

If you become the target of a bully, Namie says you should:
• Stop listening to the bully’s lies and verbal assaults. You did nothing wrong and don’t need to feel ashamed.
• Break through your fears. Even if you do it for only one week, it’s better to confront your worst fear and stand up to the bully. Procrastination only makes the problem worse.
• Assert your right to be treated with respect regardless of who you are and where you rank.
• Demand respect directly from the bully whenever you interact. You owe it to yourself.
• Document the bully’s misconduct. Report him/her to anyone who will listen. Break the silence.
• Rally witnesses and co-workers to help defend you, to shame the cowardly bully-tyrant.

Bullying – whether it happens when we’re kids or when we’re adults – can be very difficult. If you need help coping, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. Your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) can offer resources, as well as community mental health organizations. Also, check out www.bullybusters.org for more strategies and information.

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