Toxic Workplaces: Tips for dealing with bully bosses and hostile co-workers

Dr. Gary Namie of Workplace Bullying Institute offers advice to employees who are facing bullying at the workplace.

April 13, 2012

Eight Forty-Eight

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The movie Bully, now playing in theaters, follows a group of kids who face mistreatment and abuse from their peers. Filmmaker Lee Hirsch says he was inspired to make the film after hearing the story of two young boys who took their own lives after experiencing bullying. Hirsch says the issue was personal for him, too, because he suffered bullying as an adolescent.

But it doesn’t always stop once we leave the classroom or school bus.

Workplace bullying--by both superiors and co-workers-is prevalent in America, and can take significant tolls on the target’s physical and psychological health. But there are currently no laws on the books to prevent bullying in the workplace. Other countries are more advanced than us on quelling this behavior. In June, the University of Copenhagen will host the 8th biennial International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment. And, countries like Sweden and France have workplace anti-bullying laws.

Dr. Gary Namie of Bellingham, Washington, founded the Workplace Bullying Institute after his wife and Institute co-founder Dr. Ruth Namie personally experienced bullying in her office. After struggling for years to end the situation, the couple founded a hotline where bullying targets could call in and seek advice. Today, the institute provides legal counsel, coaching on coping, research and surveys and has published two books. Dr. Namie joined Tony Sarabia Friday on Eight Forty-Eight to discuss methods for dealing with workplace bullying.

The Workplace Bullying Institute generally advocates an approach that helps targets (they don’t call them victims) of bullying build a “business case” against aggressors. The goal is to prove to higher-ups that the company can’t afford to keep the bully in the work environment in terms of productivity. Most targets of bullying are good at their jobs, which is why they’re being targeted, says Dr. Namie, but absenteeism and illness prevent those employees from producing at their highest capacity. Unfortunately, even in the best case scenario, the target will usually end up leaving their job. Leaving with dignity and self-respect, however, is important because it makes it easier to get a new job quickly.

The rough economy can make it difficult for targets of workplace bullying to walk away from a position, even if they are being harassed. Some, like caller Camille, feel that walking away from a salary is too much of a risk.

Aggressive behavior is not tied to race, sex or sexuality so it cannot legally be called harassment. Workplace bullying is not technically illegal in the United States, which is why it is usually the target and not the bully that ends up quitting. To make bullying illegal, says Dr. Namie, there needs to be conclusive proof that that it can have significant negative effects on employee health, from depression to cardiovascular disease. A number of states, including Illinois, have introduced anti-bullying bills, but none have passed.

There are similarities between the case for criminalizing workplace bullying and the case for criminalizing domestic violence in that what was once thought of as merely human nature is now widely seen to be a form of violent crime. That is the kind of mindset shift that Dr. Namie is seeking to achieve for workplace bullying. Until then, however, he encourages targets of bullying to realize that they did not bring the behavior on themselves and that, even in this economy, in the long run it is usually best to walk away.