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February 03, 2003
Can You Identify Your Workplace Bullies?

Contributing Editor, Best Practices in HR

Recognizing the characteristics typically exhibited by bullies and their target(s) is the first step in recognizing the extent to which bullying may prevail in your workplace.

Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie, internationally recognized researchers, authors, and developers of The Work Doctor ®, say that according to recent research:

  • Bullies are rarely psychopathic.
  • The majority of bullies are opportunistic.
  • Bullies terrorize with impunity.
  • Half of all bullies are women. Women bullies target women 84 percent of the time; men bullies target women 69 percent of the time, making women the majority of targets in the workplace.
  • The vast majority of bullies (80-90 percent) are bosses; some are co-workers, and a few bully up the ladder.

In their book, The Bully At Work, Gary and Ruth have categorized different types of bullies, cautioning that these categories are not sacred or static. "Those who choose to bully can adopt any tactic at any time to accomplish their goal." The broad categories and corresponding bullying traits include:

Constant Critic. Extremely negative. Nitpicker. Perfectionist. Whiner. Complainer. Fault finder. Liar. Masks personal insecurity with public bravado. Loved by senior management because of ability to "get those people to produce." Aims to destroy confidence, encourages self-doubt.

Stress and desk rage

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A study of American workers suggests that workplace stress and long hours are creating a growing phenomenon of "desk rage" in America, with more employees arguing on the job and breaking down under pressure.

The research was conducted by the real estate advisory and appraisal firm Integra Realty Resources, Inc., with the assistance of Opinion Research Corp. The group conducted a random phone survey of 1,305 working adults.

One out of 10 respondents said they work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred because of stress, with 42 percent saying yelling and verbal abuse occurs at their workplace. While only 2 percent of those surveyed said workplace stress has caused them to strike a co-worker, 29 percent admitted to yelling at colleagues because of stress. The survey also found 1 out of 8 workers has called in sick because of job stress.

Says Integra president Sean Hutchinson, " As employee shortages continue to boost individual workloads in many sectors, employers need to take steps to alleviate America’s growing workplace stress."

Two-Headed Snake. Passive-aggressive. Indirect, dishonest style of dealing with people and issues. Jekyll-Hyde. Pretends to be nice while sabotaging you. "Friendliness" serves only to decrease resistance to giving information that may later be used against you. Smile hides naked aggression. Assassinates reputation with higher-ups. Plays favorites.

Gatekeeper. Most transparent of the controllers. Needs to establish self as "one up" on you, to order you around, or to control your circumstances. Control of all resources (time, supplies, praise, approval, money, staffing, and help) is the most important aspect of work. Approval must be solicited.

Screaming Mimi. Stereotypical bully. Controls through fear and intimidation. Emotionally out of control. Impulsive. Explosive. Threat of physical violence becomes issue. Wants to instill sense of dread. Overbearing. Self-centered, insensitive to needs of others. Very worried about being detected as imposter. Bombast masks incompetence.

Bully targets

Bully targets tend to exhibit two characteristics: a desire to cooperate and a non-confrontational interpersonal style. Targets also value honesty, fairness, and integrity.

Accordingly, targets are vulnerable and easily traumatized because they are generally more tolerant of others even to the detriment of their own mental and physical health.

Identifying and exposing bullying patterns

One of the easiest ways to determine how pervasive bullying may be in your workplace is to look at the incidence of employee claims of illegal employment practices such as harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Even just one complaint should send up a red flag because it suggests that bullying tactics have already reached a critical level. Other indicators that bear watching include changes in:

  • Turnover and productivity
  • Workers’ compensation and disability claims
  • Accidents and illnesses
  • Talent flight or poor recruiting success
  • Bad publicity
  • Employee sabotage or resistance to management initiatives

Not only can they have significant cost implications, but if you evaluate these factors at the human level, you’ll likely find bullying tendencies that need to be dealt with … now.

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This article reprinted with permission by the publisher Business and Legal Reports, Copyright 2001, BLR.

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