Bullied at Work? Why You Might Not Have Any Protection

5 scary reasons why bullies are rarely caught and punished

Posted Apr 21, 2016

Workplace bullying in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions.  One reason why bullying is so rampant is that bullies are rarely stopped and very infrequently punished.  Here are 5 reasons why workplace bullies often get away with it.

Inability to Recognize Bullying.  Believe it or not, many people are simply unwilling or unable to recognize that bullying is actually taking place.  “He was only teasing her.”  “They’re just having fun.”  “It’s harmless.”  “He’s being too sensitive.”  A great deal of rationalizing takes place because people are reluctant to call out bullying behavior for what it actually is.

The Bystander Effect Social psychology has studied what is known as the "bystander effect" - the fact that when a person needs help, many observers simply stand idly by and don't assist the victim.  In the workplace, colleagues often look the other way or decide not to get involved when they observe a coworker being bullied.  A great deal of bullying could be stopped if bystanders would just intervene.

Fear of Retaliation/Escalation.  One reason that bystanders don’t intervene is because they fear that they themselves will become the target of the bully.  Supervisors also might fear being targeted themselves. Targets of bullying often don’t fight back because they fear that this will just cause the bully to engage in more bullying.  Bullies rely on these fears to get away with their bullying behavior, but standing up to the bully is the only way to get it to stop.

Anachronistic Attitudes.  In the past, bullying was often tolerated (“boys will be boys”), and targets of bullies were told that they had to “toughen up.”  Today, we recognize the terrible damage that workplace bullying has on causing employee stress, absenteeism, turnover, and detrimental effects on employee well-being.  But these outdated attitudes are still rampant in many organizations, as supervisors simply let bullying continue, choosing not to act, and even refusing to call abusive behavior “bullying.”

Ineffective Legislation, Fear of Litigation, and Impotent Human Resources.  Workplace bullying is not illegal in the United States, unless the bullying is targeted to someone from a protected group and the bullying is associated with the target being a member of the protected group.  As a result, organizations are not obligated to stop bullying.  Moreover, a common tactic used by bullies when they are accused is to claim that they are the ones being harassed by the supervisor or organization.  And, organizations may back off fearing that they might be sued by the bully.  I know of one school district that refused to act against a parent who was bullying teachers and administrators because the bully threatened to sue the district.  Targets of bullies often find no protection from Human Resources for these same reasons (HR departments are often “litigation-phobic” and fail to take proper action).

Stopping the rampant workplace bullying is not going to be easy.  It is going to take action by legislators, organizations, supervisors, and the targets themselves to stand up to bullies and stop this damaging behavior.

Go here for tips and resources on how to stop workplace bullying.

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