Balancing act: Readers dispute prevalence of workplace bullying
Are Americans really being bullied at work? Or are U.S. workers just too sensitive to criticism?
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.
"We live in a society where we are quick to anger and slow to understand. Employees don't take time to get to know their co-workers and see them as people. Others are obstacles for us, so we think we can treat them badly."
This is one of the reasons I've always been a proponent of team-building activities. When the members of a team know at least something about each other's lives outside of work, they tend to relate to each other better and are more sensitive to people's strengths and weaknesses. Not only does this make for a more pleasant work environment, but it also tends to improve productivity.
This point was supported by an email I received from a reader named Michael.
"I worked for a high-tech software company where we sold as a team," Michael wrote. "One of the sales engineers disliked me for some reason, I believe because he knew I was a sales guy with no technical background and would ultimately make more money than he would. He held great power over the sales.
"He would belittle me in front of the team, threatened to withhold support on my deals, and other rude behavior. There was a pecking order in the department, so it was a difficult problem to solve. Being junior in tenure, it was not realistic to go to management. I finally ended up working around him, using other engineers on my presale efforts where that was possible."
Working around someone is one solution, but I still believe there are better ways to overcome bullying at work. An email from a reader named Tara summed up the goal here.
"Mutual respect and perspective is essential for resolving any conflict so it can hopefully be a 'win-win' scenario," Tara wrote. "Mutual respect can be comparable to eyeglasses where one lens represents one perspective, the other lens represents a different perspective. Yet too often it seems people look out of a single lens — like a telescope. They cannot see beyond their own point of view .
"If we are to progress toward obtaining a higher level of mutual respect and cooperation between people of different opinions, circumstances, political affiliations, cultures, religions, etc., that is difficult to attain unless individuals are willing to meet on common ground. ... That takes men and women being humble, respectful and gentle with each other, and focusing on what is right, not who is right."
It would be hard for bullying to thrive in a workplace that incorporated those attitudes. Let's work in that direction and hope we can build offices that are bully-free.