Nov 16 2010

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Doing battle with bullies: Report urges employees to speak up about abuses at work

By Kim Covert, The Province

Bullying is a hazard in the workplace — but it’s not just an occupational hazard, like getting a bad boss instead of a good one, or ending up in an office with co-workers you don’t really like.

Katherine Williams, an Ottawa author who’s just published a book on the subject, says she always thought the bullying she’d suffered over her 38 years in the workplace was just part of the cost of being employed.

It wasn’t until she started doing research for a report on workplace harassment a few years ago that she realized it’s not an occupational hazard — it’s violence, and it’s more widespread than she knew.

“It has no place in the workplace,” Williams says firmly. “It is psychological, emotional violence — it can be physical violence if things get out of hand. [The research] was just a light shining on a dark corner of my mind, the part of my mind [that thought] I had just had to put up with the pain and humiliation I’d been through.”

Williams says before she took early retirement last June to dedicate herself to raising awareness about bullying in the workplace, she’d been the target of at least four major bullying attacks, and several minor ones — and she has no idea whether those numbers are high.

“There are certain people who are targeted more than others: Good-natured people, because bullies think that being strong is causing pain and hurting people, and people who are good-natured are seen as being weak.” Women over 40 are also singled out, she says. But since the goal of most bullies is to gain power, the competent are also frequent targets of bullies, says Williams, author of Workplace Bullying: A Survival Guide.

“Competent people are strong, they’re capable, they’re getting awards, they’re getting notice, attention, everything bullies crave. So a bully will see this as a threat to be driven out of the workplace.”

Quite often the workplace bully will “co-opt” vulnerable co-workers to help them in their attacks — a phenomenon that Swedish researcher Heinz Leymann calls “mobbing,” a phenomenon that builds on the human instinct to band against a common foe.

“The goal of a mobbing attack is to make coming to work unbearable and force the target to quit the job,” Williams writes, though the opposite usually happens because the target is disoriented from constant attacks and “unable to muster the confidence and energy” to seek out and impress a new employer.

Individual acts of mobbing can seem trivial — people at a meeting ignoring the target’s opinion, co-workers failing to return a good-morning greeting; people closing ranks so the target can’t join a group; a cool, dismissive look from a formerly friendly co-worker.

A former co-worker came to Williams one day upset because a supervisor had warned her that she could do her career harm by talking to a colleague who was essentially being pushed out of his job by bullies.

“And you think to yourself, ‘what did I do? … I did my job, I’m friendly, I’m not doing anything to people behind their backs, why are they treating me like this?'” That kind of toxic workplace creates a constant state of anxiety in the target, and can cause mental and physical instability if it goes on too long.

Victims of a bully’s attack need to realize there is no way to stop being a target if both remain in the workplace –there will be no agreeing to disagree and getting on with it.

That leaves victims with two choices, Williams says. The first is to fight back, to protect your reputation.

“And also look for another job. Because once a bully gets into a workplace it’s really hard to dislodge them unless management’s very much aware of the psychology of bullying and realize they’ve been suckered into hiring a bully. Leave kicking and screaming. Make a noise, make a big noise, because bullies thrive when there’s silence.”

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