Workplace Bullying and its response

New study shows that men and women respond differently to bullying in the workplace

March 1, 2017

Would you know if someone was being bullied at work? It’s not always easy to tell.

Many years ago, I worked as a sales rep for a boss who managed by intimidation. He publicly shamed and embarrassed his employees. He forced everyone to arrive at 7 a.m., before work hours began, to attend unpaid training events. He led by fear and intimidation. There were frequent openings on his staff because employees often made the decision to leave rather than endure the bullying, but some of us, like me, had no choice; we needed the work and decided that suffering through it, in silence, was better than being unemployed. Because it was the ’70s, this type of intimidation was, unfortunately, part of the landscape, especially for women who worked in typically male environments.

So I was interested to see a new study that looked at bullying in the workplace, with a focus on how employees responded to being bullied by their supervisors or co-workers. The study, from Aarhus University (Aarhus BSS) and the University of Copenhagen, also looked at how men and women differed in response to bullying.

The research, which assessed the responses of 3,182 participants, found that men and women were at almost equal risk of being bullied in the workplace, but there were gender differences in how they responded. Interestingly, bullying often caused women to go on prolonged sick leave or use antidepressants, while men were more likely to leave the labor market altogether for a period of time.

Could this study provide clues to help identify bullying in the workplace? For example, if a manager sees that one of his female employees is taking an extraordinary amount of sick time, might that be a red flag? Or if a male employee abruptly leaves the job for no discernible reason, might bullying be behind an otherwise inexplicable decision?

It’s important for companies to get a handle on bullying because it has real costs, such as reduced productivity and increased turnover costs. In the late ’90s, amidst an economic recession, Japanese companies even used bullying as an intentional tactic of forced job attrition. And aside from these obvious costs in employee turnover, there are less tangible costs to bullying as well. A work environment where bullying exists can cause increased anxiety levels and a breakdown in levels of trust among co-workers. The result can be a big decrease in overall communication and a disruption in team performance.

Employees might not always speak up when they’re being bullied, but there are signs to look out for. Another study, conducted by researchers in Italy, looked at bullying and gender response differences and offered some ideas about prevention. As in the Danish study, the researchers found that men and women differed in their response. Women were more likely to take action and talk with someone about their situation, and to report work problems to their superiors. Men were reluctant to say anything about being bullied. The authors emphasized the need for training as a way to help prevent bullying. They recommended that companies receive training, on a corporate and individual level, on behavioral techniques such as conflict management.

But while training employees in conflict management is important, it doesn’t eliminate the need to identify bullying that hasn’t been reported. As in my own example of working with a bully who happened to be my boss, it isn’t always easy to speak up when it is happening to you. So we can’t count on getting notified when something is wrong. Based on these studies, behavioral cues, such as excessive sick days, isolation, or non-participation, might be key to identifying a bullying problem in the workplace. Recognizing that men and women respond differently to bullying should also be on our radar. Anything that will help us to see the signs will make it easier to encourage communication and resolution.

So, while it is important for companies to have a “human resource” response to bullying, and to have a plan in place for effective training, the most important thing we can do to help prevent bullying in the workplace is to pay attention to what people are saying through their behavior, and to create a work environment that encourages communication about what is happening. When someone’s behavior changes at work, bullying could, unfortunately, be the reason.


by Denise Gifford

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