WORK ETHICS

12.30.12

Is Your Boss a Bully?

Workplace torment is more common than we think, and it can lead to medication use, according to a new study. Trouble is, what counts as bullying isn’t quite clear. Lizzie Crocker reports.

Debra had worked as a visual designer at a major retail chain for about two years when she received a brusque written review from her supervisor: “Wear your hair down and wear more makeup.” No mention was made of the window displays she designed and built for the clothing company’s flagship location, a job which required physical work. Debra (not her real name) didn’t even interact at all with customers, so she was much less concerned with her appearance than other 20-something employees trying to sell cashmere on the floor.

Still, it wasn’t long before Debra’s appearance became a running joke among the store’s managers, who taunted her with backhanded remarks. “Oh, Debra, you actually wore your hair down today!” When she met with an executive to voice her concerns about what she deemed inappropriate workplace behavior, he said that—despite her good work—she was dispensable. Without giving two weeks’ notice, Debra left the company. “If you didn’t suck up to the right person, you were going to be punished in some arbitrary way,” she told The Daily Beast.

Debra’s story may sound like a scene from The Devil Wears Prada, but a new study says workplace bullying is more common than we think—and could lead to medication use for mental-health issues. Researchers surveyed more than 6,000 people in Finland and found that one in eight men and one in five women claimed they were bullied at work. Both male and female victims of workplace bullying were roughly twice as likely to be prescribed antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs than those who didn’t report any abuse.

It may not be a big surprise that being bullied at work, just like being bullied at school, would lead to mental anguish. But experts say a key difference is that the U.S. doesn’t clearly define or recognize workplace bullying, despite the fact that many employees cite it as a reason for quitting their jobs.

“We’re behind the rest of the world when it comes to defining and quantifying workplace bullying,” says Joe Grimm, a professor of journalism at Michigan State University and editor of The New Bullying: How Social Media, Social Exclusion, Laws and Suicide Have Changed Our Definition of Bullying. In the book, Grimm defines office bullying as a manifestation of aggression at work that leaves professionals crippled with anxiety or fear.

Britain, Australia, and other countries refer to it as “mobbing,” loosely defined as any kind of systematic physical or emotional abuse of an individual by his or her colleagues. The Finnish study says intimidation, belittlement, social ostracism, and even playful teasing fall under the umbrella of workplace bullying. “The reality is that the kind of bullying we see in school is not much different from the bullying we see at work” says Grimm.

In other words, the archetypal bullies in Mean Girls and Dazed and Confused are terrorizing the American workforce much like they did the schoolyard. The biggest difference is that while school anti-bullying legislation has passed in 49 states, laws protecting employees from workplace bullying have only recently been introduced in the U.S.

Grimm worked as a recruiter at the Detroit Free Press for eighteen years, a position that required him to perform exit interviews. More often than not, he says, employees cited rampant bullying as a reason for quitting: “It wasn’t, ‘I’m leaving because my boss was mean to me,’ but rather, ‘I’m leaving because people are mean to each other. I don’t like the atmosphere here.’”

In such cases, workplace bullying ends up doing more harm to the employer than the employee. “Attrition is very expensive,” says Grimm, who adds that the cost of replacing someone at work amounts to two times that person’s annual salary.

Still, the fact that workplace bullying is considered subjective may be a major impediment to getting legislation passed. After all, adults have more complicated relationships than children, especially in their professional settings. Collegial hierarchies are inevitably formed and enforced, and there will always be bosses who think a little office ribbing is a good thing.

So what’s the difference between a demanding boss and a big, bad bully? Ask someone on the receiving end of it, and it’s pretty clear. Fred, who works at a music publishing group and asked that his last name not be used, says he sees executive assistants get bullied all the time.

“I see these girls, and they’re miserable. They’re sad,” Fred says. “They don’t hide how they feel. They’re very honest about it. I’ll say ‘How are you doing?’ and they’ll just point to their boss’s door, and they’ll say, ‘I just can’t deal with this anymore.’”