When Workplace Bullying Goes Too Far

Experts say bullying at work is worse for your health than previously thought.


March 10, 2008 — -- "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.

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."

Johnson has plenty of support from her department manager and colleagues, but has decided not to pursue any course of action that might cause her direct supervisor to lose her job, especially because she is due to retire soon.

"I don't know if I could live with the guilt of her losing her job ... a year and a half before her retirement," Johnson said. "If I can live through it and just be rid of her, that's a pretty good alternative, too."

There are other reasons someone in Johnson's position might want to keep mum.

In general, companies still rely on reporting bullying behavior up a chain of hierarchy. Data from Hershcovis' study showed that bullies get angry when their targets attempt to report the problem and tend to step up their behavior, making the situation even worse for the target.

And despite reported increases in defining bullying behavior within standard company protocol, according to the National Human Resources Association, it is hard to punish perpetrators.

"The tactics are not illegal, per se, as far as the EEOC is concerned," said James Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

Unless the target can prove that the bully is behaving in a discriminatory manner, based on race, color, national origin, religious beliefs, sex, disability or age, "I don't know that there is anybody, federally, that could help them," Ryan said.

But in addition to the strain of frequent bullying, a target's stress levels are compounded when they feel they lack the power to do something about the mistreatment. Bullying evokes the sexual harassment problems of yesteryear, when women in the late 1970s and early 1980s fought for such behavior to be recognized and penalized.

"It is much like the rape and domestic violence myths," Namie said. "You say, 'If it's so bad, why didn't you just get up and leave?' Well, because! We're much more constrained by circumstance."

But while the workplace is far from free of sexual harassment, for both men and women, people who experience these problems have more opportunities and clearer resources for reporting wrong behavior than someone who is bullied, because sexual harassment is legally punishable.

In fiscal year 2007, the EEOC received 12,510 charges of sexual harassment and resolved 11,592 of them. No such data exist for bullying, and it would not be easy to try to collect figures.

"Knowing that the behavior is wrong and having the ability to voice it... you can attribute the blame to the perpetrator," Hershcovis said. "In terms of aggression, you wonder is it something you've done that makes you deserving of the aggression."

State or local laws may be the best avenue when seeking sanctions for a bully. Namie said 13 states have introduced laws against bullying, but that it will be many years before there is a federal law against it.

Lepowsky, lacking such laws, continued to fight against his bully for almost three years with meticulous documentation, persistence and luck.

He suffered intense stress that affected his health and took away from his job, but eventually, Lepowsky wrangled apologies from the administration. He is now a resource for others in similar situations.

"It was a wrenching upheaval in what I did and how I did it and what was important in my life," Lepowsky said. "She went after a lot of people, but I was certainly the one who suffered the most, and I was the one that fought back the most -- and was victorious."

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