The Bully at Work: What Social Workers Can Do

Article excerpt

Although awareness of the serious psychological and sometimes deadly impact of childhood bullying has been a major focus of attention for parents, teachers, and helping professionals in recent years, far less emphasis has been placed on adult bullying that occurs in the workplace. A recent NASW News article on workplace bullying (Pace, 2012) strongly resonated with me from both a personal and a professional vantage point as an important issue that is often swept under the carpet, and thus I am highlighting the phenomenon of workplace bullying and its ramifications in this editorial. Victims of such harassment are often silenced into believing there must be something wrong with them, that they are not good enough or that if they just try harder they will win their supervisors' approval.

As stated in the article (Pace, 2012), workplace bullying can be defined as

   repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one
   of more persons (the targets) by one or more
   perpetrators that takes one or more of the following
   forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/
   behaviors (including nonverbal) which are
   threatening, humiliating or intimidating; or
   work interference--sabotage--which prevents
   work from getting done. (p. 4)

Women, ethnic minorities, and lower level workers are more apt to be targets of bullying than upper level management employees. Ironically, women are also more likely than men to be the perpetrators of bullying (Pace, 2012). Some of the virulent bullying behaviors include the following: false accusations of mistakes at work, discounted ideas, vicious rumors or gossip, harsh criticism, screaming and tantrums, retaliation against complaints made by the victim, intimidating behaviors, lying about performance, and other demeaning and aggressive tactics.

As a clinical social worker, I worked with many adult employees who were experiencing job-related stress. For example, I worked with a 25-year-old female bank teller who was sexually assaulted by a senior colleague while attending a training for new employees. She experienced severe symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder following the assault but was determined to keep her position at the bank. This was clearly a case of sexual assault and harassment with legal ramifications; the following case, although far less severe, was nonetheless debilitating for the client and constituted workplace bullying.

A 35-year-old woman walked into the counseling agency and stated she could not go back to work and needed to see a counselor as soon as possible. Lois (a pseudonym) slumped in a chair in my office and told me she thought she was having a nervous breakdown. She stated that for months she had endured a barrage of verbal attacks from her supervisor and that she did not know where to turn. Lois was a professional with a graduate degree, who worked in a large organization with many departments. Her direct supervisor, Janet (a pseudonym), who had 20 years of experience, had been harassing Lois since the time she started her job, a year and a half earlier. Lois stated that Janet was continually belittling her and routinely screamed her demands and criticisms in front of others in her department. She was never satisfied with the amount or quality of Lois's work and, at every opportunity, would imply that she would never be successful in her career.

Through tears, Lois recounted numerous negative encounters with Janet. For example, Janet called Lois at home one weekend and told her she expected a large amount of work to be done by Monday. When Lois stated it was impossible to accomplish this much work, Janet said, "no one wanted you at this organization in the first place." When Lois had to be away unexpectedly due to her father's sudden heart attack, Janet asked Lois if she had "planned her father's heart attack" to avoid going to a meeting she had missed while away.

Initially Lois succumbed to these verbal assaults by working harder, often spending nights and weekends at the computer. …