Anti-Bullying Advocacy: An Unrealized EAP Opportunity: Educating Executives about the Impact of Workplace Bullying Can Help EAPs Define Their Role as Productivity Tools

Article excerpt

The original plan for this article was simply to make readers aware that a U.S. and international movement exists to combat workplace bullying, a problem EA professionals routinely encounter. However, strategies for repositioning EAP services detailed in Sheila Monaghan's article ("Developing an EAP Strategy") in the previous issue of the Journal of Employee Assistance compel us to suggest that EAPs can best serve their employer clients by embracing workforce health advocacy as a unique niche, or "brand." Solutions to the workplace bullying dilemma might partially define the "cause for action" that EA professionals are uniquely qualified to deliver to organizations.


EA professionals are familiar with individuals who present a host of stress-related complaints caused by their work environment. We refer here to cases in which an employee identifies ongoing exploitative or abusive interactions with a boss or co-worker as the source of his/her stress. Remarkably, one in six U.S. workers suffers such relationships, which damage psychological health while eroding overall workforce productivity.

We call this phenomenon workplace bullying when the mistreatment is repeated, health-harming, and illegitimate. Bullying is a sub-lethal, non-physical form of violence, psychological in both its execution and its impact on targeted individuals (of those self-identified as bullied, 41 percent are clinically depressed, while 30 percent of women and 21 percent of men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder). Bullying's illegitimacy refers to the use of destructive interpersonal tactics that interfere with work performance--that is, bullying undermines accomplishment of the employer's business interests. Bullies put their need to control others above the employer's genuine goals.

In the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, the vast majority of bullies (70 to 90 percent) are supervisors and managers. Researchers in one U.K. study credited the importation of American command-and-control management style for the rise in bullying, but some people are predisposed to mistreat others, regardless of workplace culture. For the majority of otherwise good people who become bullies, however, title power elicits the darker, crueler side we all possess but few manifest. When pressure is on to meet profit goals or efficiencies (especially in cases with fewer staff), managers are expected to deliver results without regard for human consequences. The fiscal bottom line is paramount.

A minority of bullies choose to humiliate their targets in public settings. Though these "Screaming Mimis" fit the stereotypical image of a bully, they are statistically rare. More dangerous and insidious are the tactics employed by the "Constant Critic" who distorts the performance appraisal process behind closed doors, attempting to reconstruct the target's personality and competence. Critics are masters of plausible deniability--with no witnesses, they can lie about their misconduct with impunity.

Most bullies at one time or another adopt duplicitous maneuvers, terrorizing their prey while ingratiating themselves with higher-ranking people. One federal agency executive, for example, refused to terminate an acknowledged division chief bully, saying, "He's a great conversationalist and lunch buddy." Bullies' targets, on the other hand, generally are not believed when they complain. They are denigrated as "whiners" and accused of being "thin-skinned" or "provocative" and thus deserving of their fate.

Adult targets of bullying are different from their schoolyard counterparts. Our research shows that targets are selected because of their refusal to be subservient ("insubordination" is the most frequent complaint about them), their superior work or social skills (which threaten the bully who lacks emotional intelligence), or their ethical whistle-blowing. Women are the primary targets of bullies (in 77 percent of cases), though charges of sexual or racial harassment would apply to only about a quarter of bullying cases. …