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Are You Being Bullied at Work?
12 Telltale Signs and What to Do About It

For a striking number of Americans, bullying has moved beyond the walls of the schoolyard to the top rungs of the corporate ladder. Although concrete numbers are scarce, it's estimated that one in six workers is a victim of workplace bullying -- more than the number of those affected by sexual harassment or racial discrimination. And worldwide, bullying in the workplace has reached epidemic levels in some countries, according to the International Labor Organization.

Although anyone can become a victim, in the United States 80 percent of the time the person being bullied is a woman, according to an online survey by The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute (WBTI).

One in six U.S. workers are targeted by bullies at work.

Contrary to what many believe, those who are bullied at work are not vulnerable, weak or thin-skinned. Instead, people who are targeted are usually the ones that others perceive as tough competition: go-getters, those who do well at their jobs, are personable, well-liked and competent.

As for the bullies, "It's about control. It's what all bullies want: control," says Gary Namie, Ph.D., founder of the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying. "Despite the mask of bravado, they are tiny, insecure people."

Three Reasons for Workplace Bullying

According to WBTI, most bullies do so simply because they can. They seek out someone who is eager to please and non-confrontational, and perhaps also a threat to their authority (71 percent of bullies are bosses). More specifically, most cases of bullying can be explained by these three scenarios:

  1. The workplace environment is cut-throat, and the bully is seeking to eliminate competition.

  2. The bully is manipulative and seeks to take advantage of a perceived opportunity to get ahead.

  3. The workplace environment rewards aggressive behavior with promotions, rewards, etc.

And while bullying is typically associated with men, workplace bullies can be men or women. WBTI found that 58 percent of bullies at work are women.

Bullied at Work? Your Health Will Suffer

Even under the best circumstances, work is stressful. There's office politics to decipher, deadlines to meet, co-workers to contend with … but add to this the energy-draining tactics of a workplace bully at your neck and your health will suffer.

Stress-related illnesses, including panic attacks, chronic fatigue syndrome, weight changes, ulcers, high blood pressure, insomnia, headaches, racing heart and more, are common among bullying victims.

Do you constantly feel anxious and agitated at work? Is someone always interfering with your job? You may be the victim of a workplace bully.

Further, according to Namie, 41 percent of bully targets become depressed, and 31 percent of targeted women and 21 percent of targeted men are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, increased costs in health care, more absenteeism and lost productivity mean that workplace bullying costs companies big bucks. One survey of 9,000 federal employees, which found that 42 percent of women and 15 percent of men had been bullied over a two-year period, found the abuse led to over $180 million in lost time and productivity.

Are You Being Bullied? 12 Tips to Find Out

"We are all lambs being led to the slaughter, we really are. Some of us are more sensitive to it than others," said Chauncey Hare, a clinical psychologist in California, co-author of "Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It," and once a workplace bully victim himself.

There is a difference between typical work-related stresses and those that occur from bullying. If you experience any of the following on a regular basis, you may be the target of a workplace bully, says WBTI.

  • Your work is never good enough for the boss

  • Your boss makes you feel humiliated

  • You constantly feel anxious and agitated at work, and dread the start of a new workweek

  • Your co-workers have been told to stop socializing with you

  • Someone is constantly interfering with tasks you are trying to complete

  • You are yelled at in front of others, but punished for yelling back

  • Human resources and other bosses say there is "nothing they can do" about the bully's behavior

  • Your requests to transfer positions or office locations are denied

  • You constantly feel stressed about work, even when you're at home

  • You feel exhausted on your days off and uninterested in activities you once enjoyed

  • Your family suggests you "leave work at the office" and your doctor asks about what could be causing your new health problems

  • You start to think you somehow caused the bullying

How to Stop Workplace Bullying

The following three steps are most effective when it comes time to confront a workplace bully, according to "The Bully at Work," by Gary and Ruth Namie.

  1. Acknowledge, and Name, the Abuse. Often when a target speaks to human resources about their bullying problem, they're told there's nothing that can be done because no physical or illegal abuse has taken place. Naming the behaviors you are confronted with (bullying, emotional abuse, etc.) is the first step to realizing that the bullying is real and should be stopped.

  2. Research Your Options and Take a Few Sick Days. Namie recommends tending to your mental and physical health while on leave, and beginning research into your legal options. Talking to an attorney may be helpful (Is discrimination involved? Can a forceful letter be sent to the bully?), as may be reviewing internal company policies that apply to your situation.

  3. During this time you should also gather statistics: how much has this bully cost the business in turnover rates, absenteeism, lost productivity, etc.? And finally, start searching for a new position, as targets of workplace bullying have a 7 in 10 chance of losing their job (either by choice or by termination).

  4. Confront the Bully. Approach the highest level person in the company possible, and present, from a factual perspective, your case for why the bully should leave his or her position. The key is to stick to your research and not let your emotions get the better of you; you may be giving the company just the reason it was looking for to dismiss the bully.

However, if the employer sides with the bully, you may wish to find a new job. Staying in an environment where bullying will not be dealt with, and in which you cannot remove yourself from the bully's influence, will likely cause your health to decline.

Only you can make the final decision, but you can use 12 Signs it is REALLY Time to Leave Your Job as a guide.

Recommended Reading

How to Detect Potentially Violent People in the Workplace

The Emotionally Hazardous Work Environment: Is it Worth the Price You Pay?


The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute (WBTI)

The Oregonian June 25, 2006

Orlando Business Journal: Workplace Bullying's High Cost

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