This is the sixth in a series on this topic.
Parts 1 - 5 are located on this blog also.
The literature on the topic of bullying in the workplace has expanded rapidly in recent years. It's important for employees and employers to know exactly what bullying is before they can recognize and address it. Naming a harmful or injurious behavior is necessary so a victim or target can successfully protect himself, as well as take steps to recover from any injuries sustained. The purpose of this entry is to look at and consider definitions in order to identify bullying if we experience or witness it in our workplace.
A number of different terms are used to describe "bullying" or "workplace psychological (or 'emotional') abuse." Other terms used are "workplace mistreatment," "scapegoating," or simply "work abuse." The term "mobbing" is used by some writers to differentiate between schools where the term "bullying" has been traditionally used, and the same kind of abuse in the workplace. "Mobbing" also adds a plural connotation to the problem which in the workplace may start with one person, but often spreads to include other co-workers and management.
Here are several definitions.
The late Tim Field in his 1996 book; "Bully in Sight: How to Predict, Resist, Challenge, and Combat Workplace Bullying," defines bullying this way: "The term "bully" describes a range of behaviours, from a persistent unwillingness to recognise performance, loyalty and achievement, to repeated critical remarks and humiliating and overtly hostile behaviours such as shouting at an employee in front of colleagues. The full spectrum ranges from a person whose communication, interpersonal, and behaviour skills are poor, to those who are spiteful, vindictive and destructive and who use their position of power to practice these traits for their own gratification" (Page 33).
Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in their 2003 book, "The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity On the Job," define bullying in this way: "Bullying at work is the repeated, malicious, health-endangering mistreatment of one employee( Target) by one or more employees (the bully, bullies). The mistreatment is psychological violence, a mix of verbal and strategic assaults to prevent the Target from performing work well. It is illegitimate conduct in that it prevents work from getting done" (page 3). The Namies are also responsible for the website Workplace Bullying Institute at http://www.bullyinginstitute.org/, an excellent source of current information about workplace bullying, including information about legislation to address the problem.
Peter Randall in the 1997 publication, "Adult Bullying: Perpetrators and Victims," defines bullying as: "Bullying is the aggressive behaviour arising from the deliberate intent to cause physical or psychological distress to others" (Page 4). On page 3 Randall also quotes a couple other sources for additional definitions. "Bullying can be described as the systemic abuse of power" (Smith and Sharp, 1994), and "Bullying is repeated aggression, verbal, psychological, or physical, conducted by an individual or group against others" (Guidelines on Countering Bullying Behaviour in Primary and Post-Primary Schools, 1993). Randall also adds a very important point. "The main similarity between these definitions is the implication that bullying is likely to be repeated or systematic, not a one-off act but a succession of events that are overtly aggressive" (Page 4).
In their 1999 book, "Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace," authors Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz, and Gail Pursell Elliott provide the reader with several definitions. The write: "Mobbing is an emotional assault, It begins when an individual becomes the target of disrespectful and harmful behavior. Through innuendo, rumors, and public discrediting, a hostile environment is created in which one individual gathers others to willingly, or unwillingly, participate in continuous malevolent actions to force a person out of the workplace."
"These actions escalate into abusive and terrorizing behavior. The victim feels increasingly helpless when the organization does not put a stop to the behavior or may even plan or condone it" (Page 33).
These authors include a definition from Dr. Heinz Leymann, one of the research pioneers in the field. Leymann in 1984 wrote that mobbing was "psychological terror" involving "hostile and unethical communication directed in a systematic way by one or a few individuals mainly toward one individual."
"The person who is mobbed is pushed into a helpless and defenseless position. These actions occur on a very frequent basis and over a long period of time" (Page 22).
The same authors also include a useful definition from Lois Price Spratlen who in 1995 wrote an article entitled "Interpersonal Conflict Which Includes Mistreatment in a University Workplace," that was published in "Violence and Victims." In that article Spratlen defines workplace mistreatment "as a behavior or situations - without sexual or racial connotations - which the recipient perceives to be unwelcome, unwanted, unreasonable, inappropriate, excessive, or a violation of human rights" (Page 24 in "Mobbing..")
Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare in Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive it, published in 1997, write: "Work abuse is the flagrant mistreatment or silent neglect of people in the staggering number of Western work organizations that remain authoritarian and overcontrol employees." They add the following insightful information "Most people in these abusive organizations, like children in abusive families, stay blind to their abuse in order to survive it. Like young children who are battered daily in abusive families, people see their abusive work situations as 'normal' and the shaming way others behave toward them as 'human nature,' because they are either unaware or disbelieving of another way of working" (Page ix).
And last, but not least, in Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, published in 1998, Marie-France Hirigoyen writes: "By emotional abuse in the workplace, we mean any abusive conduct - whether by words, looks, gestures, or in writing - that infringes upon the personality, the dignity, or the physical or psychical integrity of a person; also behavior that endangers the employment of said person or degrades the climate of the workplace" (Page 52).
All six of these books are excellent and worth reading. In her book Hirigoyen deals with emotional abuse in the home as well as the workplace. The books by Field and Randall are British publications so the legal information in them may not necessarily apply to situations in the US. Randall includes a chapter on preventing bullying in the community. "Mobbing..." includes information about, and sample policies from, companies who have sincerely addressed the problem of workplace bullying. I purchased 100 copies of "Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace," to distribute to former co-workers and others who may be in a similar situation."Work Abuse" does an excellent job of describing how harmful bullying is to the target. The Namies supplement their fine writings with their website and also with public and TV education of the problem. It's my impression that most of these writers, like myself, became interested in the topic of bullying/mobbing as a result of being the targets of a bully in the workplace. They have taken this destructive experience and used it to skillfully inform and benefit others.
At this time I'm not writing my own definition but here are a few observations and some insights based on my own experience and on the definitions of others.
1. There is a difference between harassment and bullying. All bullying is harassment, but not all harassment is bullying. Harassment can be a single event or action, but bullying is a set of repeated acts, directed at one individual. These acts can occur numerous times in one shift as in my experience, or less often, perhaps as infrequently as once a week. If someone is having a bad day and acts in a rude manner toward a co-worker, but then apologizes to the victim, and behaves differently the next day, that is not necessarily bullying. A bully persists in targeting his/her target consistently and repeatedly, often for months or years.
2. Bullying is injury-causing behavior. A person who is bullied more frequently is likely to be injured sooner. It's possible that one victim will still be ignoring the abuse, while another targeted with a similar dose, is already injured by the bullying. However it's important to remember that regardless of how quickly someone is injured, the injury is not the fault of the target.
3. Bullying is an act of violence. The International Labor Orgainization includes bullying under the heading "Violence in the Workplace," along with homicide and rape.
4. Some writers use the word "victim" to designate the recipient of the bully's bad behavior and others, such as the Namies in their writings prefer to use "target." I think, in this context, the two words are interchangeable. Using the word "victim" according to the Namies, may draw some people who have been victims of abuse in childhood back to that traumatic experience, which could aggravate the problem. Also the Namies write that "victimhood begets powerless, helplessness, and an inability to change matters for the better"(Page 5 of The Bully at Work). These are legitimate concerns. However it's a fact that many people become victims of others through no fault of their own. This includes not only victims of bullying, but also victims of sexual abuse, drunk drivers, and war. Recognizing oneself as a victim might be the first step toward rising above the experience, seeking and finding a safer place, making conscious decisions to seek additional professional help as needed, and then responding to the experience of being victimized by publicly addressing it, as these authors have done. Another option, of course, is to not talk about it except to therapists, close friends, and/or family.
5. For many people being bullied at work, the only option is to quit and get a job elsewhere. However that can be very difficult. I worked for the same employer for over 25 years when the bulling started and I was there for 30 years before being forced to find a job elsewhere. By then I was injured and partially disabled. Fortunately I left in time to avoid permanent disability. My situation was unique in that I had a long and highly successful career behind me and had enormous support from church, family, friends, as well as from a small number of co-workers. I also frequently talked about the problem, primarily to people outside the workplace. I sought professional help early and repeatedly. All that helped keep me from being more seriously injured and assisted in my recovery. Many victims or targets of bullying don't have a strong support system and don't talk about it, or seek professional help. Regardless of whether someone considers himself a target or a victim, the important thing is to seek help and recovery, and then ultimately use the experience as a catalyst to move on and be successful in life. This does not mean that the person must ignore the experience and not talk about or address it. As the writers of these books have demonstrated, some will continue to use the experience of being bullied to help others.
6. Bullying is often done in a subtle and discreet manner. It's possible for someone to be the target of a bully for a long time without anyone other than the bully and her/his target knowing about the problem. However even in circumstances when the bullying is overt, as in chronic loud verbal harassment that is witnessed by other employees; or even the kind of bullying I experienced which included disparaging comments and accusations to co-workers and management from the bully, as well as a steady dose of rudeness and ostracism directed at me, (also witnessed), the co-workers will not necessarily recognize the behavior as being very harmful. This is partly because one has to actually be the target of a bully to appreciate the vicious and injurious nature of the behavior. As a society we are so used to being entertained by tense conflicts on TV dramas and sit-coms that often include rude, obnoxioius, and condescending dialogue, as well as malicious behavior that we don't appreciate how destructive chronic tension, verbal harassment, and/or ostracism can be in real life. Undoubtedly a dozen or more of my co-workers witnessed the bullying I was targeted with, but as far as I know no one, other than myself, ever reported it to management. Why? I believe that no one reported it because someone who hasn't been the target of a bully in the workplace cannot appreciate how destructive such behavior is. It's also true that some people, especially those in management tend to see such a problem as a simple personality conflict. A bully in the department, while in the process of damaging another person's health and career, can actually provide a dose of macabre entertainment for others in a setting that might otherwise be boring and predictable. Even though the policies of most employers expressly forbid the kind of behavior that a bully demonstrates, most of those policies are not enforced and not even adhered to by management.
It's important for everyone in the workplace to know what bullying is, so they can recognize and effectively resist it when it occurs in their workplace. Allowing the behavior of bullies to go unaddressed simply makes the world a more dangerous place for everyone.