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February 11th, 2022

Why Workplace Bullying Persists—And How to Help Prevent It




Workplace bullying and harassment are symptoms of broader bias. They are forms of exclusion and, complicating matters, current law provides protection only from harassment. Individual organizations are responsible for holding bullies accountable. Political tensions and strongly differing cultural viewpoints, among other factors, are leading to heated exchanges among coworkers across the country. Indeed, while bullying has practically always existed in the workplace, it seems to have heightened over time—especially within the last two years.

According to Dr. Crystal Miller, BiasSync's Chief Learning Officer & Organizational Strategist, bullying and harassment are “on the same spectrum.” She says, “hostile behaviors intensify with harassment." She also adds that while “harassment is never permissible,” bullying is typically more subtle—"its intensity level is much more nuanced.”

Bullying is generally defined as repeated, hostile behaviors meant to intimidate, dominate or cause fear in others—for example, eye-rolling or laughing at someone while they’re speaking. It can be as subtle as not calling someone by their preferred name, not holding the door open for a coworker, or simply withholding your full attention.

Studies show that bullying affects 60% of employees at all levels. Data also reveal that bullying depletes performance, causes stress, impairs physical and mental health, and lowers self-esteem.

Additionally, certain events can exacerbate bullying. For example, experts point to increasing reliance on remote technology as another stimulus for increased bullying. Essentially, this remoteness offers bullies a certain confidence that comes with distance. While eye-to-eye contact creates greater empathy, typing hurtful words on a screen creates a disconnect that offers the freedom to act more aggressively.

Fortunately, some organizations are taking a thoughtful response to bullying by increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) efforts. Similarly, employees have started to pay greater attention to what is acceptable and appropriate at the workplace.

However, while positive, team-building conversations may be taking place, some employees are exhibiting fatigue and showing resistance to anti-harassment efforts. As a result, what is not overtly acceptable at work now may be taking place covertly as people demonstrate subtle, but hostile, behaviors.

A feeling of kinship

People tend to bully individuals with whom they do not feel a kinship. Dr. Atira Charles, a diversity thought leader and one of BiasSync’s experts, says, “If you don’t feel an attachment to people who are dissimilar,” you’re more likely to bully them. On the other hand, “The more time you spend with someone who is dissimilar to you, the more facts you gain about that group,” which alleviates stereotypes.

Indeed, acknowledging disparities and inequities—and opening to others’ points of view regardless of their differences—creates greater equity and inclusivity opportunities. This openness naturally reduces workplace bullying and harassment.

Equally important is accepting individuals’ unique qualities and preferences. What may be considered normal behavior for some, others may see as unacceptable. Understanding the difference requires empathy, trust, and acceptance. Taking time to understand coworkers’ preferences and values equips people to be aware of—and mitigate—potential bullying.

Another important aspect of bullying has to do with intention versus impact. If it’s repeated, the impact can be strong. That behavior can become ingrained and normalized, which can exacerbate the problem.

Managers and leaders don’t often realize that although there may be no physical harm being done, harassment and bullying inflict emotional and psychological harm. This harm “can resonate in a lasting way,” Dr. Charles says. “When humans don’t feel valued, when they feel attacked, it creates a sense of vulnerability and pain.”

What to do

Addressing workplace bullying and harassment begins with the individual. Certain self-awareness tools can alert people if they might exhibit bullying tendencies. At the same time, people must be open to change—a sense of approachability. If someone has never received feedback about their communications style, for example, it may be because people are not comfortable providing that feedback. It’s important to consider what behaviors and profiles have to do with this.

“There are ways to be nice and ways to be mean,” says Dr. Charles. “And that doesn’t stop at K through 12. Those children become adults.”

Regardless of the current health crisis, bullying and harassment represent real issues that companies should prioritize. Experts say organizations should provide employees with resources and tools so they know where to go if they see bullying and harassment—what formal processes are in place and who they should talk to.

Companies also need to understand that not all types of bullying and harassment are the same. Each situation is nuanced, which requires an equally nuanced, unique approach. For example, harassment could be racially- or gender-motivated, each requiring its own response.

Specific steps organizations can take include:

  1. Drafting a formal anti-bullying policy (if they don’t already have one). Doing so helps ensure a company is explicit about why certain behaviors are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. It’s also important to keep policies updated and current.
  2. Offering training—evidence-based and rooted in science and research. Addressing and preventing workplace bullying and harassment requires near-constant reinforcement.
  3. Coaching employees, which offers resources to people. Experts say coaching can create internal coping resources and mechanisms.
  4. Encouraging employees to engage and participate proactively in positive efforts to alleviate bullying. To help prevent bad behavior, people need to point it out without judging that behavior.

Watch a full discussion, and learn more about preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Not just diversity. Inclusion.

Diversity is not just about numbers. It’s about people’s experiences in the workplace. If you’re ready to understand how bias impacts your company—with data to make effective changes, contact us now.