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Balancing act: Survey: Bullying is wreaking havoc in the workplace

Bullying isn't only a problem for children at school. According to a new survey from VitalSmarts, it's causing problems in offices, too. But just how big is the problem, and what is it costing victims and companies?
Bullying isn't only a problem for children at school. According to a new survey from VitalSmarts, it's causing problems in offices, too. But just how big is the problem, and what is it costing victims and companies?

From the moment you arrive every day, you're on edge.

You try to stay away from him — in fact, you do your best to avoid even eye contact — because you know what will happen. The mocking. The berating. The belittling.

But you're not on the playground at elementary school, trying to duck that kid who always tears you down. You're in your cubicle at work, hoping you can stay away from the boss or co-worker who makes your work-life miserable.

Bullying isn't only a problem for children at school. According to a new survey from VitalSmarts, it's wreaking havoc in our offices, too.

The survey of 2,283 people in May 2014 showed that 96 percent of respondents said they had experienced workplace bullying. Furthermore, the respondents said that 89 percent of those bullies had been at it for more than a year, and 54 percent had bullied their co-workers for more than five years.

I was shocked by how high those numbers were, and so was David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and co-author of "Influencer," "Crucial Accountability" and "Change Anything."

In an email interview, Maxfield said people often assume bullying is something that ends with our school years, but that clearly isn't the case.

"Among children, research shows that boys and girls experience and participate in different forms of bullying," Maxfield wrote in his response to my questions about the survey. "Boys experience physical bullying, while girls experience emotional bullying. We find that physical bullying decreases with age — as you become an adult. But that emotional bullying is alive and well in most organizations."

What is "emotional bullying"? According to the survey, 79 percent of respondents identified behavior that was overly controlling or autocratic; 74 percent pointed to sarcastic, cutting or demeaning comments; 68 percent talked about the silent treatment or cold shoulder; and 64 percent mentioned gossip, rumors and misinformation.

As part of the survey, VitalSmarts also collected 731 stories of bullying, and Maxfield shared some of those with me.

One person talked about being bullied by a manager. "She would belittle people in front of their peers," this person wrote. "Nothing and no one met her expectations. Even when she was provided with exactly what she requested, she would find fault in the product or delivery in some way."

Another respondent wrote about sabotage at the hands of a longtime secretary to one of the firm's attorneys. This bully badmouthed the respondent to the other administrative staff. "She even refused to spell me when I needed a break from the front desk to use the bathroom. When I reported her behavior, I was told that she had been with this attorney for a number of years, and he was satisfied with her work and had no inclination to fire her or even discipline her."

Some respondents mentioned physical bullying, including one who wrote about a colleague who reported sexual harassment. "Afterward, some of the people in her department made life very miserable for her — the cold shoulder, talking against her, turning new employees against her, excluding her and even physically assaulting her (purposely slamming a cupboard door against her 78-pound frame)."

While some of these examples are at the extreme end of the bullying spectrum, the fact that the survey collected so many stories speaks to the ubiquity of the problem.

And the fact that our economy has, in many ways, shifted to a focus on "knowledge workers" hasn't eased the problem, Maxfield said.

"In knowledge industries — high-tech, software, healthcare, etc. — emotional bullying is the norm," he wrote. "We see a lot more cutting sarcasm, controlling behavior and subtle threats. Think of it as the 'smart person’s form of abuse.' … Sarcasm has always been the knowledge industry’s preferred method for bullying."

Regardless of the form bullying takes, Maxfield said the average victim's most common response is avoidance.

"The problem is that 'silence isn't golden, it's permission,’ ” Maxfield wrote as part of the email interview. "Staying silent signals that the bullying is acceptable — that the bully can get away with it. It reinforces an unhealthy organizational norm."

According to the VitalSmarts survey, 64 percent of respondents who were bullied at work said they tried to stay away from the problem co-worker. Fifty-eight percent said they dealt with the problem by venting to others, and 45 percent said they had to engage in "dysfunctional workarounds" to avoid problems. Forty-eight percent said they planned to quit or were thinking about quitting to avoid an office bully.

But not everyone tries to avoid the problem. Some people respond in kind (8 percent of respondents) or lose their tempers (10 percent). Those who try more constructive strategies included 35 percent who said they reported a work bully to a manager, and 31 percent who talked to the bully directly to share their concerns.

Regardless of the response, the damage of workplace bullying goes beyond the emotional and physical harm faced by its victims. That should be enough to encourage a company to act, but if it isn't, executives can look at other costs of this bad behavior.

"The costs are shockingly high," Maxfield wrote. "One in five of our respondents say that working around a bully costs them seven or more hours per week in extra work. This translates into $8,800 in lost wages to those workers or their employers every year."

In a big company — or even a smaller firm — those numbers can add up quickly.

So what can be done to combat workplace bullying?

I'll share some of Maxfield's ideas in next week's column. In the meantime, I'd be interested in your response to these survey results. Do you think workplace bullying is a common problem? Have you ever faced such problems? How did you respond, and what was the outcome?

Please share your stories, and I'll use some of them in future columns. Maybe increased awareness of bullying of all kinds will finally help make a difference, whether it's on the playground or in Cubeville.

Email your comments to or post them online at Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.