National Edition

Costly cruelty: Workplace bullies hard to stop

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Bullies have made life at work miserable for about one third of Americans. But getting them to stop their torture isn't an easy task.

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Ron McMillan must have seemed like the perfect target to the three workers on an assembly line in Clearfield, Utah. McMillian had just finished his first year at college in the summer of 1971 and looked clean-cut, nice and perhaps naïve. So they bullied him.

"They'd do things like when I sat down at lunch — while I was eating, they would distract me," he says. "Then they'd pour motor oil on my sandwich."

They were relentless. They mocked him. They put him down.

"Words do hurt," he says. "They do damage."

That was when McMillan was, as he says, "quite young." The experience helped stir an interest in workplace bullying. Now, at 61, he is the co-author of the national best-seller "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High" and cofounder of VitalSmarts, an organizational consulting firm based in Provo, Utah. He is also part of a large demographic. Various studies place the percentage of people who have been bullied at work between 30 and 37 percent.

A study in the Management Communication Quarterly said workplace bullying can lead to psychosomatic illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and increased medical expenses, not to mention reduced productivity.

Gary Namie gained his interest in the topic after his wife experienced the "boss from hell."

"We thought it was harassment. Or maybe, it was dealing with a difficult person," he says.

They had no name for the experience until he heard of workplace bullying.

"You can be bullied and not even know it," he says, "You can be immersed in this misery and slide down a notch every day."

In 1997, Namie started what would eventually be called the Workplace Bullying Institute, based in Bellingham, Wa. The institute provides resources for employees who have been bullied and trains employers to end bullying in the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an associate professor of organizational communication at North Dakota State University, says workplace bullying is persistent aggression against someone. "It is repetitive," she says. "It continues on and on, getting worse over time. It is frequent. The bully picks away at the target. The victim feels they are unable to stop the attacks. They feel powerless, or at least less powerful than the bully."

Lutgen-Sandvik remembers her first job at a women's resource center for battered women. Ironically, the executive director was a "screaming, raging bully," even in front of the battered women, who would cringe and grab the arms of their chairs.

Eventually, employees informed the center's board of directors. It took months, but the boss was removed.

Who are the bullies?

Lutgen-Sandvik calls the worst workplace bullies "high aggressives."

"They don't have a well-developed sense of empathy," she says. "They are high on narcissism."

They are horrible one second to a target, she says, then perform beautifully with smiles for a supervisor.

Sam Horn, author of "Take the Bully by the Horns," says the way bullies treat others has a lot to do with perceived social status. People above them get treated well, those "below" not so well.

Lutgen-Sandvik says bullies' low sense of self-esteem or security can make them target anyone perceived as a threat. Bullies fear losing their place of power. Driven by fear, she says, they don't care about others' feelings.

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