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Balancing act: Readers dispute prevalence of workplace bullying

Published: Sunday, Aug. 17 2014 1:12 p.m. MDT

Are Americans really being bullied at work? Or are U.S. workers just too sensitive to criticism? Several readers have sent these questions my way during the last month since I wrote a couple of columns about the prevalence of bullying at work.

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Are Americans really being bullied at work? Or are U.S. workers just too sensitive to criticism?

Several readers have sent these questions my way during the last month since I wrote a couple of columns about the prevalence of bullying at work.

By way of reminder, those columns focused on a May 2014 VitalSmarts survey of 2,283 people in which 96 percent of respondents said they had experienced workplace bullying. Even more disturbing is that the respondents said 89 percent of office bullies had been at it for more than a year, and 54 percent for more than five years.

I've received dozens of emails and online comments in response to those columns, and several of them questioned whether bullying is a problem at all.

"This makes me chuckle," one person wrote in a comment online. "You are not required to remain at your job. If you are competent, teachable and work well with others, I daresay you will not have an issue changing jobs or being 'bullied' for long.

"On the other hand, if you are incompetent, unteachable and don't work well with others, you are asking to be belittled at work, where often times people will use you and belittle you to blow off steam and get a laugh at your expense. Certainly the lead (worker), or person producing the most numbers, is not privy to the bullying that the person who is dead weight on the team is subjected to."

Others commenting online seemed to agree with that sentiment.

"What really constitutes 'bullying'? Definitions vary. I believe that claiming bullying is exaggerated," one person wrote.

Another contributed this: "There's a lot of 'my boss demanded that I do my work, and if I didn't he threatened to take away my job ... that's bullying' going around."

I guess I can see where these readers are getting their ideas. I think some people might feel that simply being told to do their jobs qualifies as bullying.

However, I believe that such instances are relatively rare. From what I've seen, and based on the many other comments I've received from readers, workplace bullying is a real problem.

For example, one person wrote an online comment describing a case in which a supervisor would not give an employee important information that the worker needed to do his or her job. At appraisal time, the supervisor gave the employee a low ranking.

"The employee filed a grievance using the various email requests for information that the supervisor had failed to respond for requests for information," the person wrote. "Document in a meeting. If a domineering division head says something in a meeting, write it down. Take notes after the meeting. In six months, the notes written the day after a meeting are almost as good as notes written during the meeting. …

"Companies that ignore bullies are making a horrible mistake, because bullying destroys teamwork. A team can always outperform an individual. In many cases, the bullies are poor performers. Because they have chosen to bully, intimidate, to lie, etc., they have not developed the skills and values required for success. Dishonesty (and bullying) is the road to incompetence."

I completely agree with that, especially regarding the importance of teamwork. I've seen in the past how the presence of a bully on a team can slow the progress and productivity of all of its members.

In another online comment, a human resources manager wrote that bullying has been part of every company at which that HR manager has worked.

"Often the victim can't simply leave the job without another one," this person wrote. "They are stuck. Often the bullying has little to do with performance.

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