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Workplace Bullying in American Organizations

For nearly two decades now, management experts, scholars, practitioners, and authors of popular business books have urged American employers to treat their employees with respect, engage in open dialogue, eliminate fear, and encourage employee input and feedback. At the same time, employers have also been encouraged to lead their organizations toward the creation of a fair and respectful culture—one that includes fairness, civility, and dignity for the employees who work there through effective leadership, employment policies, benefit programs, internal communication, and the like (Daniel & Metcalf, 2001; Daniel, 2003a, Daniel, 2003b; Daniel, 2006; Daniel, 2009b; Deming, 1982, 2000; Drucker, 1992; Goldsmith et al., 2003; Hartling & Sparks, 2002; Hornstein, 1996, 2003; Levering, 1988; Miller, 1986; Peters & Waterman, 1982; and Sutton, 2007, to name but a few). Despite these vigorous efforts to promote the development of a more humane and respectful workplace, the idea that an individual is entitled to be treated with dignity at work sadly remains “a somewhat revolutionary
concept” (Yamada, 2008a, p. 56).

Though it may be immoral and unprofessional, it is not yet universally illegal in the United States for managers to intimidate, threaten, exploit, control, humiliate, manipulate, ostracize, ignore, fail to communicate, engage in a pattern of obstructive behavior, or gossip and spread rumors about their employees—a phenomenon which has been labelled workplace bullying. Despite compelling evidence suggesting that bullying and related workplace abuse is costly to employers (Level Playing Field Institute, 2007), actions like these are directed towards employees with a surprisingly high frequency in the American workplace.

Three important studies, released in 2007 and 2008, now clearly confirm the pervasiveness of the problem:

  • A March 2007 survey of 1,000 adults (which included extensive interviews with 534 full and part-time workers) in American workplaces confirmed that nearly 45 per cent of the study’s participants reported that they have worked for an abusive boss (Employment Law Alliance Survey, 2007).
  • Similarly, in September 2007, a poll conducted by Zogby International for the Workplace Bullying Institute (the largest scientific survey of bullying in the United States to-date, consisting of 7,740 online interviews of a representative sample of the adult population), found that 37 per cent of American workers—an estimated 54 million employees—report being bullied at work. When organizational bystanders are included, bullying affects nearly half (49 per cent) of all full or part-time employees in America, or 71.5 million workers (U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, 2007).
  • In a joint study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Ethics Resource Center, approximately three out of 10 HR professionals (32 per cent) reported having observed misconduct that they believed violated their organizations’ ethics standards, company policy or the law. Of the top five types of misconduct witnessed, the most prevalent included “abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees” (excluding sexual harassment), with 57 per cent of the participants confirming that they had witnessed this type of bullying behavior at work (Society for Human Resource Management and the Ethics Resource Center Survey, 2008).

Like sexual harassment, workplace bullying is a deep and painful assault to the dignity of the person targeted for such abuse. Bullying occurs in a variety of different forms, with the most commonly described behaviors including: intimidation, threats, exploitation, humiliation, control, manipulation, ostracizing, ignoring, failure to communicate, engaging in a pattern of obstructive behavior, and gossiping/spreading rumors about an employee (Daniel, 2009a). Targets have described the agenda of the bully as “I’m gonna get you—whatever it takes,” and describe the experience of being bullied as an “all-out personal attack” on the targeted individual (Daniel, 2009a). The significant impact of the experience and the emotional toll it takes on the target is both humiliating and painful: I mean, that’s where you just say that—literally—you wish the Earth would open up and suck you in. You know, like a big hole would just suck me in so I could get out of that situation” (Daniel, 2009a).

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