Friday, September 10, 2004

Beware: Bullies at work

Bad behavior in the office is nothing to laugh at - its toll is emotional and financial

By Peggy O'Farrell/ Enquirer staff writer

Jan Werff knew the boss was trouble.

(The Enquirer/Brandi Stafford)
"She had a thing about forcing people to do what she wanted, whether it was work-related or not," he says. "She liked to touch you and back you into a corner."

Once the woman grabbed an employee by the shirt "and gave her a shake," Werff says. Another time, she grabbed a different employee by the neck "and throttled her."

And he wasn't exempt. "She'd get right in my face and say, 'How does it feel for a big man like you to be bossed by a little lady like me?' " he says.

Here are the top 10 tactics adopted by workplace bullies, as reported by bullying victims:

• False accusations of errors not actually made.

• Staring or glaring; nonverbal intimidation and clear hostility.

• Discounting the person's contributions or opinions during meetings.

• Using the silent treatment to "freeze" out the victim and isolate them from others.

• Exhibiting mood swings in front of the work group.

• Making up rules "on the fly" that even he/she did not follow.

• Disregarding satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence.

• Harsh and constant criticism exhibiting a different standard for the target.

• Starting or failing to stop destructive rumors or gossip about the target.

• Encouraging others to turn against the target.

Source: The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute

Werff has all kinds of horror stories about his former bully boss. Other workers offer tales of co-workers who cornered them in restrooms and hallways or managers who threw things during staff meetings.

It's nice to think bullying stops once you're out of school. But more and more, employers are dealing with playground-style intimidation tactics that have been transplanted to the office or shop.

Among other problems, experts say, is that workplace bullying hurts the bottom line: Costs for health care, replacing employees and, in some cases, legal fees rise as worker productivity declines.It's hard to quantify what, exactly, constitutes workplace bullying, but victims and experts agree that they know it when they see it.

Gary and Ruth Namie, psychologists and co-directors of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Wash., have done extensive research on bad behavior in the office.

Variety of tactics

And just like their counterparts on the playground, workplace bullies don't have to resort to physical violence to flex their aggression muscles: Tactics include spreading rumors about their targets, "freezing" them out of meetings and initiatives or isolating the victim socially or physically.

Supervisors can use the evaluation process to target their victims, deny them plum assignments or set standards that are impossible for the victim to meet. Peers can sabotage projects or encourage others to turn against the target.

Werff, 49, of Latonia, has filed a complaint with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against his former boss and their employer, which he says failed to respond to his and co-workers' complaints. Now on administrative leave, he's set up his own business.

Health hazards from bullying
The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Wash., has identified 33 physical and psychological symptoms experienced by bullying victims. Here are the top 10 symptoms victims most often experience for the first time after the bullying starts:

• Heart arrhythmia (82 percent).

• Using substances (food, tobacco, alcohol, drugs) to cope (82 percent).

• Avoiding feelings, thoughts and situations that remind them of trauma (81 percent).

• Recurrent memories, nightmares and flashbacks (80 percent).

• Chronic fatigue (80 percent).

• Shame or embarrassment that led to a drastic change in lifestyle (79 percent).

• Feeling edgy, irritable, easily startled and constantly on guard (78 percent).

• Obsession over details at work (77 percent).

• Panic attacks (77 percent).

• Exhaustion leading to the inability to function (76 percent).

Dean McFarlin, a professor of global leadership development at the University of Dayton and co-author of House of Mirrors: The Untold Truth About Narcissistic Leaders and How to Survive Them (Kogan Page; $24.95) estimates about 10 percent of managers think they can get away with bullying their subordinates.

"That means for most of us, since we're going to have a dozen bosses over the course of our lives, the odds are you're going to run into one of these people who is narcissistic to the extent that they're at least a little abusive," he says.

While researching his book, McFarlin collected horror stories from workers who'd been bullied by their bosses. One man's boss pulled a gun on him and threatened to kill him. It wasn't until the second time it happened that the man realized the gun was fake, McFarlin says.

"He would literally crawl past this guy's office because if he crawled, his boss wouldn't see him and come running after him," he says.

Estimates differ on how widespread workplace bullying is and who the perpetrators are.

A July study from the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that nearly a quarter of workplaces surveyed reported some degree of bullying had been reported in the previous year.

The study also found that 39 percent of the most recent bullying incidents reported were worker-to-worker, while 24.5 percent involved a customer as the aggressor; a supervisor was the aggressor in 14.7 percent of the incidents.

A 2003 study done by the Namies found that 71 percent of workplace bullies outranked their victims.

Dr. Paula Grubb, the organizational psychologist who led the NIOSH study, says results of such surveys often depend on who's asked about bullying. For the NIOSH study, researchers surveyed human resources contacts. Grubb works for NIOSH's organizational science and human factors branch, which is based in Mount Lookout.

But for the Bellingham study, the Namies talked to bullying victims.

"Human resources is often less aware of the sort of subtle forms of aggression," Grubb says. "They're going to know if they've had a shooting or a physical attack. For the more subtle things, they probably don't really have a good idea of what's going on."

As a follow-up study, Grubb's team will go back to the workplaces surveyed and ask workers what they've witnessed or experienced, she says.

The good news is that more employers are paying attention to it and trying to resolve the issue, experts say.

Establish policies

The key, says therapist Judie Garvin, is to establish policies that define bullying and harassment and spell out clear procedures on how incidents will be dealt with and then to enforce those policies. She works for Concern, an employee assistance program operated by TriHealth. Training new employees on behaviors that will and won't be tolerated can go a long way toward preventing bullying, Garvin says.

Sara Lee Foods in Blue Ash, like many large companies, gives all new employees training on what constitutes bullying and harassment and the company's policies against it, says Shelly Sherman-Greene, manager of talent development.

Sara Lee established the policies to prevent bullying, Sherman-Greene says, and also set up a resource line so employees don't have to report the incidents to their supervisors.

All reports are investigated, she says. "What we've done has been to be proactive to make sure we have policies in place so that people know they have resources should an issue ever occur."


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