Bullying, learned in the school yard and practiced in the workplace, is an epidemic for which organizations pay a high price in terms of absenteeism, turnover, and mental and physical illness. In a survey done by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International, over a third of respondents reported that they had been bullied on the job. These are findings reported in the March 25, 2008 Science Times section of the New York Times and in the blog “Well” written by Tara Parker-Pope. Her March 11th post offered this definition of bullying: “persistent criticism, yelling, spreading gossip, insults and ignoring or excluding workers from office activities.” That post has received 334 comments to date, many of them describing personal experiences with bullying. For example, Amy wrote:

I worked for an organization for several years & I was shocked at the behavior of a co-worker. She bullied, ignored requests, was aggressive, petty & simply rude to anyone she felt she could get by with this behavior. And, she still works there & no one says anything about it. Two employees wanted to quit because of her behavior but they were told to basically keep their chin up & try to stay away from her. This solution came from the Executive Director of our organization and an HR employee.

I know from my own experience being bullied and observing bullying of others in my, dare I say it, many years working in different kinds of organizations, that bullying is a serious problem. However, the trend toward trying to deal with the problem through anti-bullying legislation misses the point. Bullying is the result of an organizational culture that tolerates and encourages this destructive behavior by managers and co-workers. It's the culture that must change. And as hard as it is for employment law to protect employees from discrimination due to race, age, or gender, it will be much more difficult to separate people who are simply rude and insensitive from people who are truly bullies. I think the problem of destructive relationships needs to be dealt with through professional education, management training, employee recruitment and selection, and by organizations creating a culture that is supportive of the development of all employees. Making CEOs aware of the high cost of bullying is a start.

I remember as a consultant attending meetings in auto manufacturing plants in which the norm was for managers to be loud, accusatory, abusive, and insulting. This wasn’t just one manager in the room; this was the tone of everyone around the table. And it wasn’t just one plant; it was nearly every plant. It is no wonder management has had an antagonistic relationship with the UAW and that these companies have had trouble building high quality cars that could compete in the world marketplace.