Bullying crosses the line into workplace
USA TODAY - July 28, 2004

Survey suggests many bosses unaware of verbal abuse in office

Employees are bullied and belittled in many U.S. workplaces, but their bosses may not find out about these abusive episodes, suggests a survey that will be released Saturday.

It's believed to be the first study of verbal aggression in a large, nationally representative sample of workplaces. The findings will be reported by psychologist Paula Grubb of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the American Psychological Association meeting in Honolulu.

''Key informants'' at 516 companies, typically bosses or personnel managers, took a phone survey done by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago; NIOSH added the questions about bullying and rude put-downs of employees.

Managers at about one out of four workplaces reported bullying. And three out of five said uncivil behavior, such as berating employees and ''the silent treatment,'' had happened in the past year. ''This is probably underestimated,'' Grubb says.

The larger the company, the more likely that bullying went on, and non-profit job sites had more bad behavior than for-profit firms. Also linked to bullying: poor job security and lack of trust between workers and bosses. Work at non-profits may be more stressful because of financial strain or heavy public contact, Grubb says, and stress can provoke mean behavior.

There's definitely more scapegoating and ''in your face'' verbal cuts than revealed in the survey, says University of Michigan psychologist Lilia Cortina, who has done three employee studies. About three out of four workers report these experiences, but most don't complain to higher-ups, she says, ''so a lot of these bosses wouldn't necessarily know what's going on.''

Some feel it's dangerous to complain; in one of her studies, two out of three who tried to defend themselves against demeaning behavior said it drew retaliation.

When workers don't trust managers, a scenario tied to more bullying in the NIOSH survey, ''mistreated people may be afraid to complain, particularly if the bully is a favorite of the supervisor,'' says organizational psychologist Steve Gravenkemper of Plante and Moran, a financial services firm in Southfield, Mich.

Job insecurity also quashes protest ''because if you don't have options, people figure this beats the unemployment line,'' he says.

In larger companies, ''the abuse can be buried in corporate layers, and if bosses don't dig deep, they won't find it,'' Gravenkemper says. ''The only way to find out may be 360-degree evaluating, when peers and subordinates are also asked to review someone who's perceived favorably by bosses.''

If top bosses act civil themselves ''and make it clear they're going to inspect what they expect,'' bullying usually doesn't take hold, he adds.

Verbal abuse at work fosters depression, insomnia and alcohol and drug abuse, Grubb says. It also lowers productivity, motivation and job satisfaction, she says.