When Workplace Bullying Goes Too Far


"I was like a soldier crouched in a foxhole while the shells were exploding around you," said Bill Lepowsky, a mathematics and statistics professor at Laney College in Oakland, Calif.

"My world went from ordered, sensible and predictable to a nonsense, 'Alice in Wonderland' world of insanity," he said.

Lepowsky's account is not from a war zone. It's from his workplace.

He is one of many who say they have experienced bullying at work. These experiences have been known to cause stress, depression and suicidal thoughts. And new research suggests that the effects can be worse than those of sexual harassment.

"Bullying is psychological violence," said Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) in Washington, and author of "The Bully at Work."

"You can take a person's humanity away from them," he said.

But even for people not driven to such extremes as suicidal thoughts, the negative impact of bullying is tremendous.

Numerous studies on children have shown that being bullied can lead to low self-esteem and depression. Fresh analysis of data from 110 studies in the last 21 years tabulating workplace satisfaction and aggression has found that the effects of bullying had more negative effects than being sexually harassed in the workplace.

"That feeling of ostracism, if anyone remembers grade three, is pretty horrible," said lead study author Sandy Hershcovis, assistant professor of business at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, Canada. "It is a feeling of powerlessness. There is nothing they can do about it."

Lepowsky discovered this the hard way. When he reported to his supervisors that a new female administrator was making false, malicious accusations regarding some of his work, she became angry. Her mistreatment of him turned into threats of termination, eviction from his office at work -- and even led to public defamation by the president of the college.

Hershcovis also found that employees who experience bullying reported more stress, anxiety and depression than their sexually harassed counterparts. They were also more likely to experience headaches and stomachaches, the pain condition fibromyalgia, generally lower levels of well-being and were less satisfied or left their jobs.

"It's disparate treatment, but it ignores race and gender," Namie said. In fact, a bully is just as likely to be a woman as a man, although targets are more likely to be female.

Bully for You

But bully targets at work are not always the introverted loners of the playground. They are often bright, social people. They are well-liked and respected, good at their jobs and typically have a strong sense of ethics and justice.

Part of the reason they are targeted is because they may possess skills that the bully does not have.

Trish Johnson, a 51-year-old office assistant at a large organization in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who requested that her real name not be revealed, said she has experienced bullying behavior from her direct supervisor for seven years.

"When I want to ask for holidays, I start getting very anxious. I stew about it. She literally does a lip curl and goes, 'oh no... when?'" Johnson said, mimicking her supervisor's sneering drawl.

"I think it scares her when I take time off," Johnson said. "She knows she can't do my job; she panics."

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