The Spreading Epidemic in America; Bullying in the Workplace.

There is a growing epidemic in America and for many workers in all industries are beginning to experience. The escalation of this epidemic is a of a form of harassment that is quietly affecting our ability to maintain production while loosing millions each year in employee turn over rates, absences and bottom line profit numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate in the United States still remains at 7.6% and depending where you live, the rate may be as low as 5.9% or as high as 19% in some parts of the Nation.  While unemployment rates are still questionable, the general feeling of many Americans is that unemployment is the number one concern that most people are fearful of and are lacking in confidence in any foreseeable turn-around of the economic condition. While unemployment is not the only reason for bullying in the workplace, it does have an affect on people who seek to protect their job and prevent others from recognition or succeeding within an organization.

The Rules Have Changed

When times are good and unemployment is not a driving factor, jobs are plentiful and people are not concerned about not having a paycheck. People generally do all of those things that have other importance in their lives; careers, family, making a home and being a part of the economic picture of prosperity and “living the dream”. Then all of a sudden, with little or no warning, many Americans faced unemployment that shattered the hopes and financial independence that affected 15-20% of the total population. Jobs of course became scarce and hundreds of thousands were left with little or no assistance from savings and unemployment assistance that could barely pay for monthly expenses.  People lost more than their jobs; they lost everything that they considered to be important in their own lives.

So Who Survived?

The corporations and industries who survived the economic downturn all of a sudden had an overwhelming source of labor and experience. At low rates of unemployment, (between 1990-2005), the lack of available workers, managers and high-skilled labor was high in demand and there were not enough of these skilled labor forces to fill positions that companies needed to increase revenue, or run the business effectively in operations and production. Average wages for skilled and non-skilled workers increased in order for companies to obtain or keep the most valuable employees while developing programs that enabled focus on employee satisfaction so employees would stay within the organization.  After the economic crash, those companies that survived all of a sudden found a complete reversal of the labor force. There was now an over abundance of labor and the supply of skilled and unskilled labor was now available. Like the rule of “Supply and Demand”, labor was and still is in abundance, wages dropped and for the most part entertaining the idea of employee satisfaction is no longer on the priority list of many companies.

Fear Trumps Teamwork and Self Preservation is Placed in the Drivers Seat…

The unemployed have faced many problems and much of them continue to struggle in hope of finding a job that pays a decent wage. If you are unemployed, or have been unemployed then you already know that wages in the United States has dropped by as much as 40%. That is a production manager who was making 75-80k in 2005, now is probably making less than 50-60k now in some states. Even worse for non-skilled workers, once making 15-16 dollars an hour, now are making between 10 and 12 dollars and hour.

In May, 2013 the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was unchanged at 4.4 million. These individuals accounted for 37.3 percent of the unemployed. Over the past 12 months, the number of long-term unemployed has declined by 1.0 million. (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013).

The simple fact is that anyone looking for work, or has found work is probably more concerned with losing their job or there next job by the simple equation of people who seek employment for less. In this day and age, people become desperate and will accept huge decreases in wage earnings in order to get their foot in the door. The hope is to rise up within the ranks, or at least be able to keep a position in a company for a long duration of time. There is a fear factor with many employees who have experienced long-term employment and for some, prefer never to be placed in the same position again.

What are the Results?

Self-preserving internal structure and bad management of employees is increasing within the ranks of businesses and in many instances a manager or supervisor may be leading your business down a path of bullying within the company. According to Psychology Today, “Workplace bullying has become a silent epidemic North America, one that has huge hidden costs in terms of employee well being and productivity. Also known as psychological harassment or emotional abuse, bullying involves the conscious repeated effort to wound and seriously harm another person not with violence, but with words and actions. Bullying damages the physical, emotional and mental health of the person who is targeted.” (Ray Williams, 2011)

Additionally, performance levels for employees who work under these types of stressful conditions have an average decrease in productivity as much as 50% and the cost to employers is estimated to be $200 Billion per year in lost production nationwide. With this much revenue being lost, it is a challenge for most employers who do not recognize bullying as being a problem but view it as healthy competition, or a generalized culture within the organization that does not affect the overall big picture. In reality, bullying creates hostility within the organization like a virus. It infects teamwork, quality, and production while increasing employee dissatisfaction that directly impacts customer sales.

As a manager at a previous employer, there was a sudden decrease in production numbers in one of the departments within the organization. My first responsibility was to find out why production levels had dropped by as much as 25% within five weeks and carefully reviewed all processes within the department. When I could find no reason, or change that affected process guidelines, I turned to employee observations and reviewed the team I had in place. After a few days I began to notice that several employees were seemingly unhappy by noticing their personal actions and interactive behaviors with others in the department. After making several inquiries with those employees, I had found that my supervisor and one or two additional employees were making threats and actually manipulating data; at times sabotaging a subordinate’s work in order to look good by seemingly catching the mistake and directly blaming other employees.

I was very surprised and caught off guard with the revelations of what I had found out and could not understand why employees with the company would resort to such tactics as bullying for the self-preservation of their own job.  “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the targets of office bullies are not the new, inexperienced and less confident employees. The targets, according to research, are the highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular employees. And making them targets makes it harder for them to get notice or reprieve. Independent, experienced workers pose the greatest threat to the bullies. And when bullies find targets that refuse to be controlled and intimidated, they escalate their behavior.” (Ray Williams, 2011)

In another instance, I was able to observe several employees grouping together and causing another employee to make mistakes and generating discontent by using specific language that targeted the employee’s morale. Within these types of groups employees often go after those who are different, or do not fit within their own group because of personality clashes, or behaviors that are seemingly unacceptable within the group. Additionally, culture plays a huge part in bullying; religion, race, gender and many other examples of social stigmas takes shape in the form of harassment in the workplace. If managers are aware of these behaviors taking place, it is your responsibility to confront the problem and even report bullying as a concern to Human Resources. However, approximately 35-40% of bullying in the workplace are often not reported and often pushed aside as minor problems, which can have dramatic negative effects that can disrupt your production team and your business.

So what are Important Steps to Prevent Bullying?

There are ways to confront bullying and prevent hostilities from escalating within your business. Having strict guidelines regarding harassment is usually a topic that is detailed in an employee handbook, but usually does not cover topics related to bullying. Involving Human Resources and key management personnel should work together and identify a general outline of bullying and focus attention toward preventive measures.

“Assisting an employee who seeks help after describing an abusive situation can be tricky. The HR professional must be able to distinguish a “bully” from an earnest but perhaps difficult or even troubled supervisor. In all honesty, the employee must be able to appreciate the difference between what might feel like “harassment” from what is actually professional counseling and oversight.” (R. Mueller, 2007)

As a manager or supervisor, leading your subordinates toward the direction of positive teamwork establishes trust and builds strength within your ranks. Empowering employees to lead and be a part of the team is always a good way to keep motivation and morale in check. Standardize communication as a key concept between management and employees that share information and work together in a way that generates positive feedback, constructive criticism and improvements that increase productivity and teamwork.

  • Make sure to keep in touch with your employees; always keep your door open and listen to your employees. In many instances employees will tell you directly or indirectly that they are having difficulties. Do not disregard what they say as a general gripe or complaint, but consider what they say as having an affect that jeopardizes productivity and offer your time to help resolve any issues that you think may be associated with bullying.
  • Invite teamwork and delegate responsibility: move toward a cooperative based environment by paring up individuals and asking them to perform task that involves working together to achieve a goal. Cross-train your employees so that they understand each and every position that affects their own job requirements.
  • Professionally approach a condition of bullying and immediately resolve issues. Observe and recognize the source of bullying tactics; take notes, document patterns of abuse, have discussions with the violating employee and make sure that everyone understands that bullying will not be tolerated by remaining consistent with your harassment policy.
  • Designate or set time aside for personal one-on-one discussions: it is not easy if you have many subordinates within the organization, but if you set aside a little time each week, schedule your employees just to catch up. Let them know how they are doing, provide positive feedback, offer constructive criticism and let them know that they are valued within the company. It has been said that the quietest employee is the best resource of information that may be key in discovering that bullying is taking place within the organization.
  • Doing nothing is not an option: Human Resources should look into developing awareness presentations and performing annual courses that involve harassment behaviors and informing employees how to report such abuses. Involve all employees, including the CEO and upper management teams so that everyone gets involved in maintaining diligence and consistency in the program.
  • There are new laws in at least 20 states that now prohibit forms of bullying in the workplace and it is recognized as harassment that has legal ramifications. While many states do not have regulating laws that cover bullying as a form of harassment and legal steps are slow to enact; it should be recognized that a corporation or company is at risk of damaging their own internal well-being and causing disruption of production that affects profit margins and overall sales. Some companies have taken steps to prevent bullying as a form of harassment and are successfully achieving teamwork concepts that increase productivity and even are surpassing overall sales objectives.  One thing is for certain, that bullying affects all businesses in some form or another and is on the rise. Without recognizing bullying as a form of harassment companies face an uphill battle of achieving success unless steps are introduced to prevent continued bullying in the workplace.

    Resources:

    Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013), Overview of BLS Statistics on Unemployment. Retrieved from the United States Department of Labor online at http://www.bls.gov/bls/unemployment.htm

    Mueller, Robert L JD, (2007), Bullying Bosses: A Survivors Guide. “How to Transcend The Illusion Of The Interpersonal.” Retrieved 07/02/2013 at http://bullyingbosses.com/management/hr_tips.html

    Williams, Ray B. (2011), Wired for Success; The Silent Epidemic: Workplace Bullying. Retrieved from Psychology Today online at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201105/the-silent-epidemic-workplace-bullying

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