For some employees, the schoolyard mentality is alive and well in a grown-up setting-the workplace. Workplace bullies are those who belittle, demean, or otherwise attack employees without cause, and an estimated one in five U.S. workers are estimated to experience bullying by those they work with during their careers.
In fact, according to a 1999 University of Illinois study, bullying is four times more frequent than sexual harassment, yet it's rarely discussed in Corporate America. To increase awareness of the damage that bullies can cause companies, The Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (www.bully busters.org) held its first national conference on January 28, 2000.
The problem is not lost on HR. A recent WORKFORCE.COM poll of 480 HR professionals revealed that 40 percent of HR professionals believe employers are more hostile toward employees than they were 20 years ago. The No. 1 cause of employer belligerence? Pressure to produce, said 40 percent of those polled. Fifteen percent attributed workplace bullying to inexperience, while another 15 percent said an imbalance between work and life issues most strongly prompts workplace hostility
Regardless of the reasons for workplace bullying, the poll provoked heated commentary from participants. "This is definitely an HR issue," says an anonymous respondent. "Unfortunately HR often does not seem to know how to handle [bullying behavior]."
Indeed, poll participants provided mixed solutions to the problem. Forty-two percent suggested additional training for managers, 20 percent said that possible hostility should be more carefully screened for in preemployment testing, while 35 percent said that HR awareness of bullying situations via frequent surveys of employees would combat the problem. Cindy James, an equity officer with Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, says, "Bullying behavior definitely affects retention. HR needs to become educated on this issue and take a role of preventing this type of behavior."
Noa Davenport, Ph.D., co-author of the book "Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace" (Civil Society Publishing, 1999), says companywide training to heighten awareness of what bullying is and why it isn't acceptable is the first step in eliminating it from the workplace. Co-author Ruth Schwartz, Ph.D., agrees. "We have a robust economy where everything looks unbelievably rosy, yet we all know of people who have been pushed around by people they work with."
Schwartz contends that HR will have to become experts in recognizing bullying behavior, although that may not be easy in some corporate cultures. "HR really does need to listen to employees, investigate all accusations thoroughly, and take action quickly to prevent damage to both the employee and the company," she says.
"This is a phenomenon comparable to sexual harassment;' adds Davenport. …