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'Ambient' Bullying in the Workplace

Sunday, September 2, 2012
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It's one thing to be bullied by a co-worker or a boss, but simply witnessing the behavior in the workplace can be enough to make a worker call it quits, according to a study of "ambient" bullying.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada surveyed 357 nurses in 41 hospital units and found a statistically significant link between working in an environment where bullying was occurring and a desire to leave the organization. The study was published last month in the journal Human Relations.

"We underestimate the power of the impact of just being around bullying in the workplace," says Sandra Robinson, a professor at UBC's Sauder School of Business and one of the authors of the study.

"For those seeking to influence problematic behavior, they need to be sensitive [to the fact] that the impact of such behavior transcends the person or the group . . . actually being bullied, and that there may be other victims who are impacted by the harmful behavior, whether it comes from their supervisor or co-workers," Robinson says.

Marianne Jacobbi, senior editor at Ceridian/Lifeworks EAP programs in Boston, says research has shown that ambient bullying, or "indirect bullying," is pervasive -- 70 percent of employees say they have witnessed other people being bullied or mistreated at work.

"Bullying has a negative effect on team relationships, which creates a toxic work environment," Jacobbi says. "When [people] witnesses bulling, they think, 'This could be me next,' particularly if it's their boss." Indeed, research has also shown that 72 percent of all bullies are bosses, she says.

HR managers should encourage an environment in which people feel safe to discuss bullying they've witnessed, and assessed that their comments will remain confidential whether they come to their boss, the HR department or the organization's employee-assistance program, Jacobbi says.

"The most important thing is creating a climate where people feel they have someplace to go when they feel uncomfortable," she says.

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Ken Zuckerberg, director of training at ComPsych Corp. in Chicago, says HR managers not only have to watch out for employees with low morale after witnessing bullying, but also those who try to appease the bully and make bad business decisions to avoid their wrath.

When dealing with bullying behavior, organizations should treat it as a performance problem first and foremost, Zuckerberg says. A common mistake that HR managers often make in these situations is to take on the role of a counselor and try to figure out what is going on in the bully's life to cause them to act that way. "One word of caution -- you want to continue to manage performance, but you don't want to be diagnosing mental-health issues," he says.

Seymour Adler, a partner with Aon Hewitt in New York and an organizational psychologist, says if top-level managers are bullies, HR managers need to risk confronting them for the sake of the rest of the organization. "[They have] the responsibility for the ... motivation, effective use and treatment of all of the human capital ...," he says, [and] need to be true to their value system, even if it ends up costing them their job."

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