Approximately 35 percent of employees in the United States report being the target of a bully at work, and they tend to keep it to themselves, according to new research at Iowa State University.
“Many of the participants felt no one would believe them, or they were afraid of being labeled as a big cry baby or a whiner, so they didn’t tell a manager or someone else in the organization,” says Stacy Tye-Williams, assistant professor of communications studies and English at the university.
“When you experience serious trauma in the workplace, it’s difficult to explain to people what is happening to you.”
The study, published in the journal Management Communications Quarterly, includes reports from 48 victims of bullying in the workplace. More than half reported being bullied by their boss, while the rest were harassed by a co-worker. Participants worked in a variety of fields including professional and technical, education, health care, banking and finance, and the military.
Many of the victims had difficulty finding the right words or putting events in logical order to explain how the bullying started and escalated. In fact, several months can pass before the victim realizes there is a problem, because bullying often starts with subtle behaviors that make it hard to identify initially.
“When the story is all over the place and feels disjointed or disconnected, people don’t understand or they can’t make sense of what happened. Then what often happens is the victim is not taken seriously or not believed, which is really sad because these victims tend to be the ones suffering most,” Tye-Williams says.
Victims often feel alone because co-workers who witness or are aware of the bullying are hesitant to get involved. Previous studies have shown that victims have lower levels of depression and higher levels of job satisfaction when they have a co-worker to talk to and provide support.
“If victims are not believed and don’t have someone to talk to about their story, then they have a hard time formulating a narrative,” Tye-Williams says. “Even if you’re not comfortable as a co-worker reporting the behavior, letting the victim tell you their story, go with you to have a drink and vent, or just feel believed can help.
“For a lot of victims, that process of being believed and having someone listen to their story is crucial in helping them better communicate about their experience.”
If a victim does report the bullying, it is important for managers to reserve judgment. Even when the story is hard to follow, managers need to listen and ask questions, Tye-Williams says.
Although schools focus a lot of attention on bullying, it is not as openly discussed in the workplace. Some research shows that children who are bullies in school continue that behavior into adulthood. Greater awareness will help, but even small, simple changes can make a difference.
“Sometimes people are already aware of bullying, but others want to know how it’s different from harassment or discrimination, so awareness of the issue is important,” Tye-Williams says.
“It’s also important that we learn how to treat each other better and reach out when people are being harmed. We can all make strides in that direction.”
Source: Iowa State University