The state of bullying at work

Nearly half of US employees will quit in a year or less when faced with a bully, and 79% have indirectly experienced or witnessed bullying at work, a new study says.

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Image: iStock/AntonioGuillem

No longer reserved for the playground or between kids, bullying has become so prevalent that 79% of US employees said they either indirectly experienced or witnessed bullying in the workplace. Almost 50% of American workers will opt to quit, within a year or less, rather than continue dealing with a workplace bully. A new report from MyPerfectResume reveals the unsettling details of the state of bullying at work. 

"People believe that bullying stays in the playground and that only children can become victims," said Jessica Ulloa, community manager at MyPerfectResume. "It's hard to imagine getting bullied as an adult, especially if you've experienced bullying as a child and learned how to deal with a bully. However, this spiteful, offensive and intimidating behavior remains common in workplaces and it's becoming increasingly prevalent. The way adults get bullied might change but the consequences are equally hurtful."

Sixty-six percent of workers admit they "personally [have] been a victim of bullying at work."

Yet bullying is something that has been kept on the down low—whether due to embarrassment, fear of retaliation, or concern of how they will be perceived by managers—despite nearly half (49%) of the more than 1,000 Americans interviewed said they "don't report workplace bullying and prefer to keep it under wraps." In more than half of the cases, the bullying comes from coworkers. 

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While telecommuting due to the pandemic reduced the amount of bullying, according to 54%, a return to the office, expected soon, will likely revive the concerns. For those who have been bullied, remote work has affected the amount of bullying:  54% said that things have improved, 32% said there was no difference, and 14% reported things have deteriorated. 

There's also a gender component: Female employees are bullied more than their male counterparts, 66% vs. 55%. Bullied women experience higher stress levels than men, 52% vs. 40%, and also suffer more from sleep loss, 26% vs. 15%.

Researchers also found an education component: American workers with a bachelor's or associate's degrees are more likely to become victims of malicious rumors than blue-collar employees with only a high-school diploma, 31% vs. 24%.

The report detailed the most common types of bullying:

  1. Being picked on or getting regularly undermined, 60%
  2. Becoming a victim of malicious rumors, 30%
  3. Having someone interfere with your work, 29%
  4. Receiving aggressive texts, emails or phone calls, 23%
  5. Work being sabotaged, 12%

And the bullies? Fifty-two percent of those polled were bullied by coworkers (33% by direct managers, 8% by external managers, and 6% by other company employees).

"Jealousy, frustration, anger, stress, are the main triggers that can push someone to become a bully," Ulloa said. "For example, an employee who feels frustrated with themselves or their performance at work can lash out their frustration by picking on someone who is doing better."

The question is, why don't the 49% of employees report they've been bullied? 

The report's author, MyPerfectResume's Max Woolf, job search expert and career advice writer wrote: "One of the reasons bullying doesn't get reported is that bullies are often high-functioning employees who bring top-dollar to the company. They could be a top salesperson who can quadruple the company's profits or an IT professional that can do the job of four while juggling several side projects." 

He continued: "As a result, it might give the target a sense the company will do anything to keep such toxic workers around and happy, making their complaints futile. Another roadblock is employees' fear of harmful job and career consequences."

If they do report it, the employee reports it, in order, to their own boss, a senior manager, human resources, and lastly, an attorney. 

Despite that report, 25% of the time "nothing changed," 28% of the time the bully was fired and the bully was reprimanded in some way 48% of the time. 

A quarter of those who reported being bullied only accomplished letting the bully know that he/she was reported, which may likely result in the behavior continuing; it's not an incentive to report.

There was a time when a more senior employee might look down on younger and newer employees. But the report uncovered that the less experienced were actually more often bullied by coworkers than veteran employees.

The effects of bullying are decidedly adverse, the report found that the results were, in order: high-stress levels, 46%, deteriorated performance, 25%; inability to concentrate, 21% and being rendered incapable of making decisions, 20%.

MyPerfectResume's survey concluded with the following advice: "It's critical to take bullying head on," and recommends that employees should address the bully's behavior in the first instance in an informal setting. If that doesn't work, it suggests the bullied document the misconduct and seek help from a manager (provided they are not the bully), HR, or someone in a leadership position. Lastly, the bullied person must insist the company carry out a meaningful investigation and take appropriate action. 

For company leaders, they suggest a rollout of a policy that outlines bullying behaviors, what forms it can take, and the repercussions for breaching it, as well as fostering a transparency-rich environment where employees are willing to voice their issues and concerns. 

Management that looks the other way or tries to cover up bullying risk it affecting the company's bottom line, lower companywide performance, and "generally create a toxic culture that drives away talent." 

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