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Workplace Bullying Institute



U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, September, 2007


Sioux City, IA, September 28, 2007–The Devil may wear Prada in the workplace, but her bully minions elsewhere could be sporting Armani, Ralph Lauren, hard hats or hospital scrubs. Such is the state of workplace bullying, an insidious problem in America that Dr. Gary Namie calls a "silent epidemic."

Cindy Waitt, left, and Fiona Valentine check out Gary and Ruth Namies' "The Bully at Work" to make a point while discussing the Namies' upcoming presentation at the "Workplace Bullying" workshop at Western Iowa Tech Community College. (Staff photo by John Quinlan) Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash., and his wife Ruth Namie, co-author with him of "The Bully at Work," will present an introductory workshop on "Workplace Bullying" on Oct. 9 at Western Iowa Tech Community College.

He sees it as a chance to raise public awareness of this issue and provide tools for human-resources people to deal with the problem, explaining the approach they should take in writing a workplace bullying policy. "The real trick is how to create a set of enforcement procedures. So it's very pragmatic," he said.

Namie has been working on this issue for about 10 years. It came to his attention through his wife's own personal experiences with a bully and escalated from there to the institute they created.

Most of their early workplace bully work involved the health care field but it quickly spread to education and government. "And now it's everywhere. It's just rampant," he said. "We get stories from domestic abuse shelters, for crying out loud. How can you be focused daily on abuse when you're getting abused as a worker?"

The irony didn't escape him.

Half of working Americans (49 percent) have suffered or witnessed workplace bullying, including verbal abuse, job sabotage, abuse of authority or destruction of workplace relationships, according to a new WBI/Zogby Interactive survey released this month that was partly funded by the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention.

The WBI survey also found that 37 percent of the U.S. work force, an estimated 54 million employees, are being bullied or have been bullied at one time in the workplace. Yet despite this epidemic-level prevalence, 45 percent of respondents said they have never seen or experienced bullying at work.

Namie finds this last result somewhat shocking, though admitting it helps explain the "silence" around the issue. "Now either that's out of some defensive, willing desire to avoid the pain of seeing the misery of other people, so they're just saying they don't see it, or they literally have just blocked it out of their mind," he said. "It's clearly of a frequency and prevalence that's epidemic rate."

In many cases, the bullying takes place behind closed doors, he admitted -- just not that many cases.

Women 'especially cruel'

The Zogby poll, which will be repeated in the future to gauge trends, also confirms an unscientific 2003 study that women are "especially cruel" to other women, he noted. The poll shows that when women bully -- and women are 40 percent of the bullies -- they target other women about 70 percent of the time, he said.

"So that 'Devil Wears Prada' phenomenon is very real, and they're just crueler than men, in a sense, to women," he said, referencing the 2006 movie featuring Meryl Streep as boss-from-hell Miranda Priestly.

Women, he noted, use a lot of social tools to divide and conquer a work group, aligning the rest of the workers against the targeted person. "They use a lot of icing-out techniques," he said. "They either spread rumors, or if they're a manager, they fail to stop a rumor and innuendo that's so destructive -- the destructive gossip, malicious stuff that's character assassination, essentially."

Fiona Valentine, public relations coordinator at WIT, said the fact that women are such proficient bullies is no shock to her. Valentine, who has been working for many months with Cindy Waitt, director of the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, to bring this workshop to town, said she once considered writing a book titled "The Velvet Viper: Women Against Women in the Workplace."

Women's bullying techniques are simply different from men's. Women are usually less confrontational but there's "a lot of tittle-tattling behind and going around people, and spending hours on sending nasty emails and things like this," she said.

Valentine also has a theory that in post-women's lib, a lot of women have risen to managerial positions without being trained in how to manage other people.

"But Cindy and I do believe that workplace bullying is perhaps part of a wider syndrome of the culture of mean in which we live," she said of a world in which a super-meanie like Simon Cowell can become a star on "American Idol." "We don't sanction meanness enough."

Waitt said she has had experience with workplace bullies in the past, and that has piqued her interest. The Waitt Institute has dealt with domestic violence and school violence. Workplace bullying is the inevitable next step, she said. "It's just a different playground," she said.

She also stressed that bosses aren't the only bullies. More often you see the "sideways bullying" between co-workers. Occasionally, you will even see the "upwards bullying" in which a staff bullies a new manager, she said.

It is important to be specific about what bullying is because you don't want it to include incivility or rudeness or boorishness, Namie said. Such behavior simply isn't severe enough to drive people from the jobs they love.

"So you've got verbal abuse. You've got conduct that's threatening, intimidating or humiliating. And then you have the work sabotage," he said. "And it's got to be repeated to be bullying."

Any of us, he noted, are capable of the single-shot emotional explosion at the workplace. Such an occurrence may not be excusable, but it isn't necessarily bullying.

You also shouldn't confuse rude, basically unpleasant people with bullies, Waitt noted.

And the target of the bully isn't the only victim. The company also suffers,

"Oh yeah, absolutely. It affects the bottom line," Namie said, pointing to turnover and litigation that come from hostile work environments. Turnover, in fact, is the number-one indicator that a bully is operating in your workplace.

"The other startling statistic is the 4-to-1 ratio -- bullying to illegal harassment," he said. "Everybody thinking a hostile work environment's illegal for everyone, and it's not. So the very narrow, legally defined discriminatory misconduct stuff, which comprises sexual harassment, racial descrimination, is really only a fifth of all the cases."

So employers expend a lot of resources to prevent discrimination and to deal with the aftermath. "They've got to, by state and federal law, but they don't have to attend to bullying," he said.

What they also neglect to do is any bottom line evaluation of workplace bullying.

Like domestic violence

Namie likens workplace bullying to domestic violence -- except that the workplace abuser is on the payroll, functioning pretty much the same way, but not facing any criminal penalties.

And employers don't see the cost, he said. They think the bully is a high-performing, rainmaking, super performer.

"Truth is, they're crushing everyone below them to get the numbers to where they are," Namie said. "And eventually they're going to wear those people out. Those people leave. Hence, the turnover. And the turnover is written off as a routine cost of doing business. But they're actually losing the very people that produced the results that you need."

Bullies spend most of their time ingratiating themselves with senior management and doing little actual work. In 55 percent of the cases, they even have an executive sponsor who protects them, Namie said, with the sponsors rationalizing their support of the bully in much the same way domestic violence is defended.

So what should be done about bullies?

Bullies can't be changed, but they can be constrained, Namie said. And they can be fired if the constraints don't work.

"All you've got to do is box them in so their behavior changes. You're not going to change their personality," he said. "And I'd say most of the bullying is not because of their personality anyway. They just see the opportunities, seize on them and then they get rewarded. So just like rats in a Skinner box, we are all prone to be shaped by reinforcement. And when it pays off and you don't get punished, it continues. So in a way we're creating our own situation, our bullying environment.

"So the employer should constrain them with a policy and faithfully enforce it at all levels. They are just reluctant to do it because policies usually evolve in response to loss."

As for the bullies themselves, they vary in their level of awareness and insight, Namie said. Most of them know they're bullies because their actions are so deliberate. "However, when you hear them describe their actions, they will just say they are responding to circumstances, that they themselves are bullied," Namie said. "They're the biggest whiners in the world."

When addressing a company audience where attendance is mandatory, he finds that it is the bullies who come up to him and complain and thank him for bringing this phenomenon to light. "They always claim that the victim made them do it, and they were just responding to it," he said. "They're responding to orders, and they're just a good little soldier."

Dolly Butz may be contacted at (712) 293-4275 or

Article reprinted from the Sioux City Journal