Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Workplace Bullying: Applying Psychological Torture at Work

Have you been the victim of a workplace bully?

What happens when a schoolyard bully grows up and enters the workforce? Or worse, what if that bully becomes your boss? The result can be outright aggressive behavior or a subtle psychological torture that can make the workplace a living hell.

Someone close to me is experiencing a horrible case of psychological bullying at work. In her case, the main bully is a supervisor, but the supervisor has created an "inner circle" that helps in applying the bullying tactics. Her story caused me to look back on other cases of bullying at work that I have encountered. Unfortunately, there have been far too many.

Workplace bullying is more common than you might expect. A 2007 Zogby survey found that 37% of workers - representing 54 million people -- reported that they had been bullied at work. Some researchers have reported that workplace bullying is a greater problem than sexual harassment.

What are the effects of bullying? Targeted employees can experience fear and anxiety, depression, and can develop a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder - leading to psychological harm and actual physical illness. This leads to absenteeism and turnover as bullied employees avoid or flee the torturous workplace.

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The B Word

Bullying seems to be on the rise in American culture. If schoolyards are the stomping grounds of young bullies, offices are the playground of grown ones.

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What are some of the tactics bullies use in the workplace?

Threats. Most commonly, bullies threaten the employment or career status of the employee. Threats of being fired, or in my friend's case, a threat of "I will dock your pay!" can be particularly troubling (even though my friend is a union employee so her pay cannot actually be affected).

The Silent Treatment. Often a bully and his or her "inner circle" will ostracize victims to the extent of completely ignoring them - refusing to even acknowledge their presence. In other instances, the bullies will stop talking when the victim enters the room, but perhaps continue talking in hushed tones with furtive looks at the victim, giggling and/or making disapproving grunts. You know, the same kind of tactics used in the schoolyard.

Rumors and Gossip. Bullies love to spread lies and rumors about their victims, and these can sometimes be quite vicious. Although untrue, rumors and gossip can filter throughout the organization and actually tarnish an individual's reputation. I've known many insidious cases where a bullied victim sought to fight back, and the bullies spread rumors that the victim was merely a "complainer" and a "problem employee."

Sabotage. Bullies may go so far as sabotaging the victim's work. This can be outright (e.g., destroying or stealing a work product, or more subtle (e.g., altering someone's powerpoint presentation or omitting a page from a report).

What can you do if you are a victim of bullies? There is a very useful website, kickbully.com that discusses the causes and consequences of bullying and suggests how to fight back.

Let's hear some of your stories of workplace bullies and how you fought back!

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www.twitter.com/#!/ronriggio

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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