The Workplace Bullying Institute just released key findings of its 2017 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey:
• 19% of Americans are bullied, another 19% witness it
• 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
• 60 million Americans are affected by it (roughly equal to the number of people who live in California and New York combined)
• 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women
• Hispanics are the most frequently bullied race
• 61% of bullies are bosses, the majority (63%) operate alone
• 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects
• 29% of targets remain silent about their experiences
• 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets
• 60% of coworker reactions are harmful to targets
• To stop it, 65% of targets lose their original jobs
• 77% of Americans support enacting a new law
• 45% report worsening of work relationships, post-Trump election
What’s striking is that nearly half of respondents observe their work cultures worsening since the election. (Read what one organization is doing about it.) So workplace bullying is on employees’ radar now more than ever.
Most research from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) comes from targets. Through targets’ lenses, we’ve seen:
- Only 4 percent of employers raised awareness of bullying (2010).
- More than 80 percent of employers did nothing to stop the bullying. Of those employers, 46 percent were actually resistant to the topic (2010).
- Nearly six percent of employers had a policy that covered bullying (2012).
- Thirty percent of employers said bullying “doesn’t happen” (2012).
- Around 88 percent of employers took no action against workplace bullying. They denied their responsibility to fix the problem (2012).
That picture of American employers is beyond unflattering.
What leaders said might be even more startling:
What is your opinion of workplace bullying?
Around 68 percent of leaders called workplace bullying “a serious problem.” Meanwhile, 76 percent of targets said their employers regarded workplace bullying as a non-issue. Perhaps the leaders simply gave the socially-desirable answer. Or maybe the discrepancy indicates changing perceptions.
What is your company doing about workplace bullying?
About 32 percent of leaders said “it doesn’t happen here, so no action is required.” Guess ignorance is bliss, huh? But what’s more startling is nearly 18 percent of leaders said they’ve raised awareness of the topic compared to 4 percent of targets who said their employers did the same. Along the same lines, 16 percent of leaders said they have adequate and specific workplace bullying policies, yet less than 6 percent of targets reported the same.
Not at my company
WBI reported that when differentiating between owners, CXOs, and VPs, owners took responsibility less of the time and are also the furthest from daily routines. Only 28 percent of owners said they’d act on workplace bullying (most said it wasn’t a problem at their companies), while more than 70 percent of CXOs and VPs believe workplace bullying was a problem at their companies and said action was warranted. Around a quarter of CXOs and VPs preferred to have HR handle the workplace bullying claims. Clearly those who are closest to the problem, the targets, have the best understanding of what’s really happening.
The bottom line
While WBI did not conduct research on whether or not leaders followed up with workplace bullying claims and says executives can be forgiven for not knowing workplace bullying claim results because it’s not a common executive job function, it’s up to leadership to change culture. Leadership followup is essential to changing the culture, with less reliance on solely to HR to change it.
“If you’re prone to magical thinking, you might believe all it takes to combat bullying (mistreatment by the employer or its agent, managers) is the collective effort by concerned coworkers who witness the events. Yes, in your dreams you see the heroic target in the boss’s threshold backed by throngs of agitated and supportive peers,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). “In reality, chances are better that only a breeze will be behind our hero at the door when left to fight alone.” Coworkers don’t intervene, according to the 2008 WBI Coworker Study. They fear they’ll be the next target, be the only supporter, ruin the fight, or be pushed away by the target.
Without the masses of disgusted coworkers behind a target, who’s left to help balance the power with employers? Unions. In a 2011 poll, the WBI asked workplace bullying targets what role, if any, they saw for unions in addressing workplace bullying.
Nearly three-quarters of targets polled believe unions have a positive role to play, and almost a quarter of those polled want to have the option to join a union.
But 24 percent of bullied targets do not trust their unions any more than their employers. Based on their years of working with targets, WBI guesses the distrust is from people who’ve likely asked their unions for help with bullying situations and been rebuffed. “Their unions did no more for them than HR. It is based on real experiences,” says WBI.
How unions could not play a central role in stopping workplace bullying
WBI offers four explanations as to why a union might not fight against workplace bullying:
- Unions officers like where they are. Union officers rise in the ranks based on their ability to fight win on behalf of union members. They don’t want interference from a new company policy or a future law.
- Unions are bureaucratic. In a union with a low service threshold, there’s less compassion and therefore less help for union members.
- Unions talk “partnership” with employers. Some unions want to get along with employers but ignore their members’ needs. This idea doesn’t necessarily point to corruption. “Unions have been forced into concessions by scheming, cash-rich employers for years. Employers threaten to shutter the business and move it offshore if pensions aren’t abandoned or health insurance co-pays aren’t increased. In other words, unions have been whipped into submission. Survival is the operating mode. Concern over quality of work life issues seems unimportant,” says WBI.
- Cases sometimes involve two union members. “Unions can be great when the bully is a non-member, typically a manager. But when bullying is member-on-member, most unions are paralyzed. They erroneously feel compelled to defend both the abusive and abused member. In reality, the responsibility is to represent, never to defend,” explains WBI.
None of these reasons excuse ineffective unions. They simply serve to explain the realities of modern unions and in some cases, what unions need to confront to regain their members’ trust.
If we were to create a workplace bullying target persona, she would be a 42-year old, college-educated, full-time, non-supervisory, non-union worker in healthcare, education, or the government, according to a 2013 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) poll.
Workplace bullying targets are most often motivated to help others. “They are prosocial, the do gooders. People entering those fields want to heal, help, teach, develop impressionable minds, and see the good in others. While focused on the work, with their backs figuratively turned to the politics and abusers in the workplace, they bring a vulnerability to attack. And like all targets, they only seek to be left alone to do the work they are paid to accomplish,” says WBI. And this mindset generally falls along gender and industry lines.
A WBI poll one year later verifies these claims. Bullied targets and witnesses said that those targeted with abusive mistreatment were often kind, giving, altruistic, agreeable, and cooperative. Though they also considered targets not likely to defend themselves and vulnerable (a strength often seen as a weakness in our patriarchal culture), it’s important to note targets are cooperators, not competitors. And collaborative work environments are proven to be not just healthier for employees but also for organizations’ bottom lines.
Nursing and teaching: rampant with bullying
What’s more dangerous is that in the nursing and teaching professions, bullying has become “so routine that it’s normalized and no longer shocks the profession,” says WBI, despite the attention given to student bullying. “Adults are physically modeling the same acts they are verbally deploring. Actions speak louder than words. A teacher humiliated in front of students is robbed of her or his moral authority to manage the classroom effectively. And parents learn which teachers they can safely attack and demoralize by following the lead of administrators.”
Government: the third-ranked industry
Poorly trained supervisors are the major problem in this sector. “Managers lacking the interpersonal skills of listening, coaching, effectively training, and caring for workers tend to supervise aggressively to mask their incompetence. Governments, with their starved budgets, first cut training to save. Unfortunately, the consequence is to inflict health-harming mistreatment on the public sector workforce,” says WBI.
Workplace bullying targets don’t always fit this mold
Workplace bullying targets aren’t only educated, non-political, altruistic women in their 40s. Respondents came from various walks of life: men, white collar workers, blue collar workers, non-educated, supervisors, and managers. The only common trait among targets is that their competence poses a threat to insecure perpetrators.
“It’s common knowledge that politics in America are quite polarized. No longer do politicians pretend to want to solve social problems with social policy. Interactions between politicians are characterized by ad hominem attacks. Politicians seem to mimic the personalized nature of bullying,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) in its 2014 instant poll. No truer are these words than with the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.
Some oppose WBI’s comparisons, asserting that WBI should stick to workplace bullying and stay out of politics. But is politics really a different field of employment? When NFL player Jonathan Martin called his professional football team an “abusive work environment,” was the NFL exempt from responsibility for employee harm, even though the NFL itself defined its locker room as a workplace where discrimination laws apply?
When the WBI asked 307 bullied targets and witnesses if bullying by politicians of politicians or citizens is as harmful as workplace bullying, 87 percent of respondents said yes, always. In other words, “the community of bullied targets does not grant exemptions easily…. Bullying and abuse are the same regardless of venue,” says the WBI, even though some say that “politics is a special type of workplace, immune from social codes and restrictions that apply to everyone else.“
- Links to mental health organizations that may be able to refer you to counselors who specialize in workplace bullying.
- Other Workplace Bullying Institute resources for targets: a book and DVD
What resources do you think are missing from the conversation about workplace bullying that would help you?
Even if you’re not an introvert, you can easily spread the word about the anti-workplace bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (no matter what state you’re in) by simply sporting a Healthy Workplace Bill t-shirt.