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Is an office bully ruining your job?

Workplace bulliesYou love your job, but are thinking about quitting. It's not the pay, the commute or even the occasional weekend hours. It's that guy in the next cubicle.

He's the office bully and his constant emotional, psychological and sometimes physical abuse has turned making a living into a living hell.

Office bullies create a dysfunctional workplace, says Gary Namie, a psychologist and founder of the nonprofit Campaign Against Workplace Bullying. Such workers can even destroy a company, he notes, through turnover, lost productivity, litigation and health costs.

And, it seems, bullies aren't going away. One in four companies has experienced workplace bullying in the past year, according to recent research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH reports that most incidents of bullying appear to be done by employees against one another.

Crossing the line
Bullies are a classic case of nature meets nurture, according to Karlin Sloan, president of The Propeller Group, a New York City company that specializes in organizational development.

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"Certain behaviors are tough behavior, but are perfectly acceptable and appropriate, but bullying is where you draw the line," says Sloan. "All bullying behavior comes from something that's not being expressed authentically.

"It's anger or fear feelings that are just being put out on whoever is the target. They displace all their anger on you and that is absolutely unfair."

Invite this troubled person into a corporate culture that either ignores or tacitly approves aggressive behavior and you could have a bully on your hands.

"We define bullying as health-endangering mistreatment. If it's not that, it's something short of that. It's office politics and maneuvering and gamesmanship," says Namie. "Most bullies are not psychopaths, they are not wackos, they are not mentally ill. They are just aggressive people who are very astute at reading the cues."

Although workplace bullies may take several forms, they share a common goal: to advance their position in the company at the expense of a co-worker, often called the target.

Are you a target?
The most destructive thing about office bullies, says Namie, is that they tend to target co-workers who are the best and brightest employees.

"It's much different than school-yard bullying," he says. "This target isn't the kid with the Coke-bottle glasses."

Instead, workplace bullies tend to drive out colleagues they view as threats: those who are technically competent, independent, possess good social skills, and have strong ethics (and thus may be whistleblowers).

Targets tend to be reluctant to report bullying, primarily for fear of retribution, but also because they run the risk of being labeled a whiner or a snitch, or losing their job outright if the bully is their superior.

There is little evidence that workplace bullies go on to commit workplace violence. According to the Center for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, co-workers commit fewer than one in 10 acts of workplace violence.

Bully targets, however, are another story. If the stress of facing a tormenter at work every day becomes too much, the bullied may eventually snap.

"Most targets are as equally likely to commit suicide as violence to others," says Namie. "They turn inward, they blame themselves, they become depressed, they have post-traumatic stress. It's more like domestic violence. They will often say they've been raped, intellectual rape."

Beating the bully
If you're a bully's target, what can you do?

First, report it. If it's a co-worker, go to your boss. If it's your boss, move up the management chain. And make it clear that it's not simply a misunderstanding or an interpersonal conflict.

Even if the bullying is not illegal under current workplace legislation, Namie says companies can move swiftly against it. Employers should bring the bully behind closed doors and call him on his behavior, making it clear that his job may be in jeopardy if it continues.

But don't join your boss' conversation with the bully.

"Traditional conflict resolution is based on rationality. Bullies are not rational," Namie says. "What they will do is sit right in that meeting and lie.

"In fact, they will come to that meeting with their case made that they've been singled out, they've been picked on, they've been discriminated against."

A company also can use practical, day-to-day business practices to deal with bullies. Does your office have an anti-harassment policy? If so, it could be revised to make it an omnibus policy covering all forms of harassment, not just the illegal ones.

And, if these remedies fail, a firm can usually make a valid case for the bullying employee's dismissal by documenting the behavior just as is done for a nonperforming employee.

No legal recourse -- yet
Namie's organization is working to pass an anti-bullying law similar to child abuse and domestic violence legislation. Until that happens, bullies will remain a dark and destructive force in the workplace.

"OSHA sticks to physical safety. British law addresses both physical and psychological safety in the workplace," he says. "In America, psychological safety is for pansies. The mentality is, 'Get tough, get a thicker skin, that's why they call it work.'"

But this tough-it-out approach doesn't work for long, for the bullied employees or the company.

"Just because it's not illegal, don't ignore it," warns Namie. "That's how managers and owners fall into a trap. They say, 'We don't have a policy that covers it, it's not illegal, just go away.'

"That doesn't mean it's not an issue. That just means it hasn't been addressed by the law."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Florida.

-- Updated: Aug. 6, 2004

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See Also
4 most-common bully types
What to do when your boss is a bully
Quiz: Is it time to change jobs?
Hunting down a headhunter

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