Silence Perpetuates Workplace Bullying

Many victims of workplace bullying experience embarrassment and shame, and endure the bullying until they can quit, transfer, are fired or find another job.

A 2011 Careerbuilder survey found that only 28 percent percent of workers who were bullied brought the situation to a higher authority by reporting the bully to their Human Resources department. (Of these, 62 percent said no action was taken.)

Of those who didn’t report the bully at all, 21 percent said it was because they feared the bullying would escalate.

When a target does report a bully to management,  the employer may respond with some kind of private internal procedure or investigation.  The bully may even face a disciplinary action or ultimate termination, but it’s all secret. So the bully leaves and is hired by another organization and repeats his/her behavior and devastates the life of another target.

There’s a huge downside to silence in the context of bullying.

For example, until the 1970s, society deemed domestic violence to be a private family matter and women were often advised by law enforcement and religious authorities  to simply become a better wife or partner to the abuser, who would then have no reason to abuse the victim. We know today that this advice ignores the power dynamics of domestic violence and resulted in deaths of many women and children.  By  one estimate, 3 million women continue to be  physically abused by their husband or boyfriend per year.

And,  society still deems it appropriate to shield rape victims, which is not surprising given our history of blaming rape victims, who traditionally were shamed and ostracized.

In a recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a rape victim argues that silence works to shield universities from their responsibility to protect students, and has made students less safe from violence.  I think the same dynamic exists for workplace bullying. If we “outed” bullies, there would be fewer serial bullies and there would be more sensitivity in general to the problem.

If you are being bullied, consider reporting it. Research shows that bullying may exact a severe toll on your physical and mental health. affects your career and your financial well-being, and that it can even erode your relationship with your spouse and children. Also, chances are your bully boss or supervisor has bullied others, and he or she will bully again unless stopped.

If you are an employer, you may be inclined to shroud employee complaints of bullying from public view.  For example, like the universities mentioned in The Chronicle article, you may feel that silence protects you or your company.  However, there is overwhelming research showing that bullying costs employers billions of dollars every year in higher health care premiums, lower morale, absenteeism, work hours lost, needless turnover,  litigation costs, etc.  By providing cover to the bully, you  become an accomplice in the problem, enabling the bulling and further demoralizing victims and witnesses. You will continue the bleeding that a bully inflicts on an employer’s bottom line.

So think about it – who really wins when there is silence about the problem of bullying in the workplace.

The bully.