Workplace bullying may be a lot more common than you think, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. In fact, by 2003, 23 states had enacted laws specifically to deal with the problem, and in 2013, five more had bills pending. So much bullying goes completely unreported, however, so it lingers and causes long-term harm to its victims, their coworkers and the whole business environment.
From a purely economic perspective, the first thing that workplace bullying does is cut into productivity. The perpetrators are not working while they are bullying others, nor are the victims working while they are being bullied. Bullying can cause extreme fatigue, emotional pain and mental distress to victims. Other than being devastating on a personal level, repeated bullying makes employees less confident, motivated and present for their work. The perpetrators of bullying often suffer from underlying issues like low self-esteem and fear of failure, which also can become more severe as bullying goes on, draining the abilities and competencies of the bullies, as well.
Bullying can cause serious trauma in its victims, and when unaddressed, the victims of bullying might seek revenge or retaliation. This is obviously bad news for the workplace. Retaliation might simply result in an escalating conflict with the bully, which is harmful enough. In severe cases, the victim might become homicidal, endangering the lives of co-workers and un-involved parties. Victims will often retaliate quietly against the workplace as a whole for failing to address the problem. This might include stealing, destruction of property, decreased motivation on the job or any number of other behaviors that punish people who aren’t even directly involved.
Bullying can take a serious toll on the workplace from a legal standpoint. When bullying isn’t addressed by management, it might end up being addressed by the courts. Legal fees, fines for failing to protect workers’ rights, the costs of hiring attorneys and mediators and possible fines for an unsafe work environment can add up to a hefty sum. In some cases, workers compensation might be ordered, and workplace insurance could increase. The more severe and long-term the bullying is, the more likely it is that the business, or at least key leaders, will be held personally liable for the effects of bullying.
Bullying can have a toxic effect on the workplace environment. Suspicion, paranoia and fear are cultivated by ongoing bullying. The perpetrator and the victim might both share shame and a desire to keep the bullying secret, creating a closed-off and impersonal atmosphere. Witnesses often fail to report or combat bullying, which leads to shame and disillusionment with the job. Sometimes, workers who observe workplace bullying just leave and find new jobs if the situation is not rectified. People might band together into cliques to protect themselves. Fear of reprisal keeps people silent about bullying and stifles workplace communication and teamwork.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."