When Bullies Don’t Grow Up: Workplace Bullying

In my post yesterday, I discussed how some recent interactions with former high school bullies helped me reach the surprising conclusion that some of my former tormentors are now mature, successful, even nice people. But it got me thinking about bullies who don’t grow out of it: what happens to them? Who are their targets later in life? And the answer appears to be that lifelong bullies find their new targets at work.

Simply the word “bully” evokes thoughts of children, the playground, name-calling, and so on. But bullying can happen in later stages of life, and therefore manifest differently for both bully and victim. One of the hardest things about adulthood is the societal expectation that you should be able to get over, or outgrow, your problems. People with depression, adult children of divorce, or any of a host of other problems are not given the same level of understanding or attention as children or teens in the same situation.

Some of it is Helen Lovejoy-ism, but some of it is warranted. The biggest advantage adults have over children is a sense of perspective. I’ve struggled with low self-esteem for most of my life, and while I’m not over it yet, I chip away at it with each passing year, as I learn more, grow more, and accomplish more. The more years you have on this planet, the better equipped you are to handle what life throws at you. But that doesn’t mean that any adult can or should be able to cope with being bullied at work.

I did a little research on workplace bullying, and I was blown away by the amount of coverage this issue has received (so please note, if you are or think you may be a sufferer of workplace bullying, there are resources out there for information and support).

Bullying at work is a serious issue because of the inherent power dynamic in the employer/employee relationship. As a child and teenager, you were not only expected to attend school, you were entitled to it. Whether you attended private or public school, your family paid for your schooling through tuition or taxes. Not so in the workplace. They are paying you. Most workers in the US are at-will employees, which essentially means that your employer can fire you at any time for any reason. Especially in the past few years, with national unemployment currently hovering between nine and ten percent, workers are more likely to stay in an abusive or bullying work situation because they have to. They need the money.

Currently, workplace bully victims aren’t specifically protected in the United States. Particular types of harassment are illegal, such as sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, religion, or nationality. But so far, general harassment and bullying are not covered by workplace law. Some workplace rights advocates are working to change this, by pushing for a “Healthy Workplace Bill“ on the state level that came close to a vote in the New York State Assembly this summer. The bill is currently on hold in New York but other states are considering it as well.

Of course, one would hope that we wouldn’t have to write such things into the law. People just shouldn’t bully other people. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would come into the workplace and terrorize their employees or colleagues. But it happens. A recent survey of Americans showed that 35% of those surveyed have either experienced being bullied in the past, or are currently experiencing it. (Source: Workplace Institute/ Zogby International survey) It seems we’ve got a long way to go.

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