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Workplace Culture & Bullying

Workplace Culture

Workplace culture impacts all aspects of a business, from day-to-day functioning to the organization's bottom line. In his book, The Bully Trap, Andrew Faas dsecribes three types of workplace cultures: dictatorial, disjointed, and stable.

  • Dictatorial Culture: The dictatorial workplace relies on power and control. The boss is typically a bully, and bullying is encouraged as a means of advancement throughout the company. There are high levels of secrecy and jealousy, with little room for positive relationships among employees.
  • Disjointed Culture: As its name sugggests, the disjointed workplace is lacking in core values and checks and balances on power. While it may appear hierarchical and bureaucratic, there is little enforcement and emotional reactions are common when handling conflicts. These workplaces are often filled with cronyism and nepotism and may not provide clear feedback on employee performance.
  • Stable Culture: The stable culture provides clear goals, rules, and values for employees. Communication is open and clear, and conflicts are dealt with effectively, absent fear of retaliation. Employees are supported, encouraged, and rewarded based on quality of work. Everyone understands the roel they play in the company and works together to ensure success for all, not just certain individuals.

While a stable workplace culture is ideal, many workplaces have dictatorial and disjointed cultures. In addition to threatening the long-term stability of the organization, these two workplace cultures provide a space where bullying can-- and often does-- thrive.

Bullying at Work

Research shows that many people experience workplace bullying. Approximately two out of every five people have been bullied at work. Almost half of those targeted at work suffer stress related health problems. The bullying can be verbal, psychological, physical, or online. It can also include blacklisting from future employment opportunities. These high-stress situations can have serious effects on an individual’s physical health, mental health, and relationships. What’s more, fear of retaliation or even job loss prevents many people from reporting abusive behavior at work. Even when the behavior is reported, employers often mishandle responses or justify bullying as a “leadership style.” 

According to a recent study based on interviews of 800 managers and employee across seventeen industries, more than half of those who experience bullying lose work time worrying and avoiding the offender and report declines in performance and commitment to the organization. Close to half of those who experienced bullying reported intentionally decreasing work effort, time spent at work, and, for a smaller number, quality of work. The costs of workplace bullying are high for both employees and employers, so what can we do about it?

What can I do as an employee?

Whether you are a target or an observer, workplace bullying has toxic effects. If bullying of any sort is occurring in your workplace, there are steps you can take to address it.

  • Acknowledge that there is a problem. Oftentimes, bullies or toxic workplaces can make you feel as if you are the one at fault. They can be dismissive of complaints or even rewarding of problem behavior. Calling bullying what it is—whether it’s verbal, physical, psychological, or online—can be a validating experience. By giving it a name, you can remind yourself that it is a real problem and you are not to blame.
  • Document the behavior. Regardless of the future steps you may take, it is important to keep a record of toxic workplace behavior. Whether you plan to use the legal system, human resources, or the advice of your superiors, it is helpful to have specific examples to support your claims. This can serve as a reminder that the abuse is more than just ‘a feeling: it is the behaviors of others. It is also important to keep these confidential until you decide upon a course of action.
  • Focus on healing and support. Because your health and well-being are the priority, it is important to evaluate the ways in which bullying or an abusive workplace is affecting your mental and physical health. If you find you are suffering, seek help from medical or mental health professionals. Focus on building support outside of work with family and friends. Draw attention to your strengths and value as a person. Because workplace bullying can hurt your relationships with others and your self-esteem, it is important to build up other areas of your life. Although someone is bullying you, you do not have to bully others or yourself. 
  • Strategize. Take time to search company policies, in addition to state and federal legal options. Allowing yourself to take a step back from the intensity of the workplace and consulting outside resources may help you to determine the best course of action moving forward. Depending on your experiences, this can include discussion with a lawyer. At this time, you may want to begin looking into other employment opportunities.
  • Take action. Taking action against workplace bullying will look different based on your level of comfort, workplace environment, and relationships with coworkers and superiors. Ideally, at the earliest opportunity you can calmly, yet firmly tell the individual that you do not want to be bullied and ask that it stop. This can be surprisingly effective, as many people do not directly confront bullies. If the bullying is more widespread or occurs at the hands of your superiors, this might not be the best or most comfortable option. Whether you speak with trusted coworkers, leaders, or human resources, know that they may not be helpful. While it is important to make them aware of your situation, there could be other social dynamics at play that will make them reluctant to act. They may be supportive of the bully or even interpret his behavior as desirable. On the other hand, they may be aware that there is an issue with this individual and are looking for support from employees. Either way, it is important to explain that allowing bullying in the workplace is a poor business practice that can have serious implications for employees and, as a result, the company’s bottom line. If the bullying or abuse in your workplace requires legal action, you should follow the advice of your attorney.
  • Remember, you are your priority. If your employer refuses to acknowledge the toxic workplace environment, it may be time for you to move on. Continuing in this workplace can cause or worsen any physical or psychological symptoms you may be experiencing. It is not your responsibility to change the culture of your workplace, but it is important for you to make the decisions that are best for your well-being. You are not running away from conflict or showing signs of weakness. You are showing strength by bringing abuse to the light and taking steps to care for yourself. 

What can I do as an employer? 

As employers, we can get so distracted by the bigger picture that we lose sight of the day-to-day work environment, but, as the research shows, a healthy work environment can make a world of difference for your business. If you know your workplace is unhealthy or if you are interested in making it even stronger, there are several steps you can take to start out.

  • Review available data and current policies. Are your employees reporting high satisfaction? Do you have high rates of turnover? Does your organization have a clear goal with values that are enforced and upheld in the workplace? Examine the numbers, business plan, and policies to see where your organization currently stands and how much you are losing from not investing further in your employees and workplace culture. It is important to emphasize not only company values and beliefs but also definitions and policies for things like workplace bullying and violence. Examine where there is need for further clarification or even new policies altogether.
  • Open a dialogue with current employees. Numbers can only tell you so much, and good policies are only helpful when they are put into practice. Create a safe, open space where employees can discuss their concerns and wants. This can be in the form of anonymous surveys, individual discussions, or both. Allow employees to tell you about dangerous or abusive behaviors, unhelpful practices for reporting abuse, and wherever they see room for improvement. Hearing directly from employees is the easiest way to get a glimpse into their daily lives. Be sure to listen to and seriously consider the information your employees share with you. 
  • Take action. After reviewing data, policies, and interviews, you may have conflicting or unclear information. You may receive complaints about individuals whom you considered your best employees or find that your mission and values as an organization are not being upheld in practice. Leaders within the organization must discuss these findings and determine what specifically needs to change, whether it is different hiring practices, improved policies for employee conflict, or a stronger adherence to the beliefs of the organization. This also means addressing any of the toxic behaviors that had been allowed or even encouraged up until this point. While this could require large changes, creating a healthy workplace culture and having policies in place to support all employees is a smart business decision. This investment on the front end can save losses in turnover, work productivity, and even lives. 
  • Adjust and be flexible.  A healthy workplace culture allows employees to be heard. This means being open to ongoing feedback about company policies and practices. Maintaining a healthy workplace and addressing toxic behaviors must become a priority. Make it a habit to review what is and is not strengthening your workplace and respond accordingly.


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