By Misty Harris
The death of teen Amanda Todd has shone a spotlight on bullying of the young, but experts say the bullying phenomenon spans cradle to casket, with older workers in particular being “at considerable risk” of victimization.
Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute finds nearly one-third of people between the ages of 50 and 64 have been bullied on the job. The organization additionally reports “a noticeable over-representation of older workers” seeking assistance for issues related to workplace torment.
“It’s institutional bullying: Let’s get rid of our older, higher-paid workers so we can reduce our payroll and hire someone younger and cheaper,” says Gary Namie, a social psychologist and director of the WBI.
As one of North America’s foremost authorities on the subject, Namie says older employees are “unequivocally” more likely to be targeted – and also to be more hurt when it occurs, as that generation has greater presumptions of fairness.
“When they’re bullied, they feel doubly violated because the rug has been pulled out from beneath them and their expectation of a safe, secure workplace has been shattered,” he explains.
The recent suicide of 15-year-old Todd, who long suffered psychological and physical torment by her peers, has renewed national debate on how to protect those who are especially vulnerable to such behaviour.
Canadian researcher Loraleigh Keashly describes older workers as being “at considerable risk” of office bullying. She says contributing factors can include: a desire by management to push them out; conflict resulting from large generation gaps or gender imbalances in staff; professional jealousy; and prejudices about older people’s ability to perform effectively.
“When you add together the people who say they’ve experienced it and the people who say they’ve witnessed it, you’re talking about almost half the working population having exposure to bullying in the workplace,” says Keashly, who’s been studying workplace aggression since the early 1990s.
In 2011, a 5,671-person survey by CareerBuilder found that the eldest and youngest workers were the most victimized age groups, with roughly three in 10 people in both demographics – 55 and older, and 24 or younger – having been bullied on the job. Immediate supervisors were most frequently cited as bullies, followed by co-workers, people higher up in the organization, and customers.
Keashly, an associate professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, says the most common forms of workplace bullying are exclusion, sabotage, verbal hostility and physical intimidation.
“If you look at these behaviours individually, you go: ‘Yeah, so someone ignored you. So they didn’t say hello. So they glared at you.’ But it becomes bullying when it’s a pattern over time, and not just a bad day,” says Keashly.
The University of British Columbia’s Sandra Robinson, author of a recent study on the issue, says the potential costs to organizations are “staggering.”
She notes that the behaviour, left unchecked, can lead to withdrawal and job neglect, absenteeism, short- and longer-term disability, and turnover. Her latest research, in fact, shows witnesses to workplace bullying can have an even stronger urge to quit than the victims.
“If you also factor in more invisible costs – such as inability to concentrate, acts of avoidance, fear of speaking up or voicing concerns, rumination and time spent dealing with difficult others or commiserating with others over mistreatment – it likely takes a tremendous toll,” says Robinson, a professor of organizational behaviour.
Paula Allen, vice-president of research for Morneau Shepell, describes it as “psychological violence” leading to mental injury.
“There’s depression, there’s fear, there’s anxiety, and we’ve seen numerous situations where it’s even led to suicide because there’s a sense of hopelessness,” says Allen, whose company provides human resource services. “It’s why we’re seeing legislation that says if an employer is aware of it, they have to stop it – and that they need to have training and protocols that help prevent it from even starting.”
Canada’s unions are doing a good job of keeping organizations honest, according to the WBI’s Namie. He’s also encouraged by provincial changes to occupational health and safety regulations, many of which now address workplace bullying, psychological harassment and violence.
But he also cautions that there’s a long way to go.
“Employers are the only ones who can stop this,” says Namie. “Telling an individual that he or she has to make the bullying stop is as ridiculous as saying to a domestic violence victim, ‘Just tell him that it hurts to be beaten.’ ”
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