I was speechless. It was 1981 and I was waiting in line by myself to check in at my 10-year high school reunion. I was dreading seeing Willy Bannister (name changed to protect me). I had been worrying about it for weeks. Would he be there? Would I see him? And then out of the corner of my eye I spotted him. I looked down at the ground and tried to pretend I was invisible.
Let me backtrack. All during middle school and high school, Willy bullied me by taunting and laughing at me. He frequently hit me on the back of the head, pushed me from behind, and slapped me hard on the back while laughing out loud to himself and his buddies.
Periodically, I tried to strike back. One time, I actually threw him off the gymnasium bleachers. Another time I punched him in the stomach but he immediately reciprocated by punching me in the eye, giving me a shiner that made me the laughing stock of the school for at least a week.
He was my bully and I was his target.
Back to the reunion.
I successfully evaded an encounter with Willy Bannister at the check-in line. Later that evening, however, I was sitting with my friends at the dinner table and he came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. He motioned to me with his finger that he wanted to speak with me. With much apprehension, I slowly got out of my chair and walked toward him where he was waiting for me in a corner of the dimly lit room. I had no idea what was going to happen. And then he said something I will never forget.
He said, "I'm sorry."
That was it. It was all he said. I was speechless. Was he apologizing for the black eye he gave me, or for the years of physical and psychological abuse? Did he even realize that he had bullied me? I didn't know. I was so shocked that I just could not think quickly enough to ask him any of these questions. I just nodded and returned to my seat.
This memory came back to me because my 40th reunion is coming up later this summer. If he is there, maybe, just maybe, I will muster up enough courage to ask.
You read about it all of the time. Here are a few recent headlines:
9 Teens Charged in Girl's Bullying
Son Bullied at School Before Suicide
11-Year-Old Hangs Himself After Enduring Daily Anti-Gay Bullying
But does bullying happen in the workplace as well?
According to a national study of more than 7,500 adults conducted in 2007 by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International, 37 percent of all adult Americans report being bullied at work (an estimated 54 million workers.) (To download a summary of the report, visit www.workplacebullying.org/docs/zogbyresultsbro.pdf).
My own studies of 80 organizations confirm that 20 percent of employees do not feel respected by their co-workers, and 27 percent do not feel respected by their supervisors.
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as:
"Repeated mistreatment manifested as either:
Verbal abuse (such as shouting, swearing, name calling, malicious sarcasm, and threats to safety), or
Conduct which is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
Sabotage that interferes with work."
Here are a few other statistics from their study:
Most bullies (72%) are bosses
Most targets (57%) are women
Bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment
62% of employers ignore the problem
45% of targets suffer stress-related health problems
40% of bullied individuals never tell their employers
Only 3% of bullied people file lawsuits
For organizations, the cost of bullying includes reduced employee creativity, low morale, and increased turnover.
WHAT TO DO
Here are several things that organizations can do to combat bullying:
- Foster cooperation rather than
competition between co-workers.
Many employers either intentionally or unintentionally pit employees against each other for resources and recognition. This can create a situation where employees work at cross-purposes to each other in order to survive at work.
- Avoid hiring overly ambitious
Some employees may be willing to hurt other employees in order to further their ambitions. Instead, hire supervisors with strong interpersonal skills.
- Be on the lookout for bullies.
Human resource professionals and senior managers should maintain a vigilant eye out for employees who verbally abuse, threaten, humiliate, or sabotage others. These employees must be caught in the act, warned, and disciplined.
- Punish rather than reward bullies.
Positive consequences such as rewards, recognition, and promotions can encourage bullies to continue their abusive and threatening ways. Stop bullies through verbal warnings and negative performance reviews.
- Educate supervisors.
Train supervisors to be able to identify bullies and detect when targets are being victimized. Teach them how to handle bullies through punishments and reporting incidents of bullying to human resources
- Establish a bullying policy.
Developing and communicating a bullying policy to all employees can elevate the awareness of bullying as a potential problem in the workplace. Kathe Cronin, Vice President of Human Resources at Tufts University, reports that they have developed a "Working with One Another" policy which reads in part, " At Tufts, there is no place in the work environment for conduct that demeans or belittles another person."
Without intervention, it is rare that a bully (like Willy Bannister) will ever apologize for his or her abusive behavior. Be proactive in your organization to stop bullies before they intimidate employees, lower morale, increase stress, and lead to the loss of good employees.