Psychologist Pat Ferris, MSW, PhD, was working as an employee-assistance administrator when it first happened: A colleague withheld information from her about a project.
At first she thought it was an innocent mistake. Then it happened again. And again.
Then Ferris overheard the colleague telling her managers that Ferris's errors were the result of ineptitude and laziness. Rather than investigate why Ferris was omitting information, the managers decided she needed to "toughen up," so they withheld support, forcing her to use atypical and complicated means of procuring the information. When she couldn't produce adequate results, they ignored her pleas for support.
Ferris logged more hours to challenge her colleagues' accusations and to keep her job. But the effort seemed futile.
"No matter what I did, it seemed like I was being set up to fail," she recalls.
Eventually she was fired.
Like many victims of workplace bullying, it was only later, after undergoing psychotherapy, that Ferris realized that her problems were the result of her company's "see no evil" mentality-a workplace culture that she defines in her research as allowing bullying to become the norm.
A recent wave of research is finding that her experience-and her co-workers' and company's mentality-were anything but unique. The research also suggests that pervasive workplace bullying has five to six times the lasting effect of positive workplace events (see page 74). It finds that bullying tends to start at the top, trickling down through the ranks, and that bullying breeds more bullying, making it an entrenched cycle that's tough to stop.
The power of workplace culture
Ferris now works in a Calgary, Alberta-based private practice where she counsels workers on how to deal with hostile verbal or nonverbal interactions at work. She often contacts the workers' organizations to investigate the situation and to offer potential solutions.
In a 2004 article in the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling (Vol. 32, No. 3, pages 389-395), Ferris notes that some companies normalize bullying by indicating that it is acceptable-either by implicitly allowing managers to join in the bullying or by failing to intervene. These actions suggest that targets of bullying should toughen up.
Other companies, she says, mislabel bullying as personality conflicts. They typically hold both parties responsible, causing the bullied worker to endure unfair scrutiny.
Ferris notes that since most workplace cultures fail to grasp bullying's psychological and physical effects, psychologists working with bullied employees should prepare them for the possibility of prolonged inaction. The length of that latency period plays a key role in how much harm both organization and victim experience, she adds.
Another key determinant of workplace culture is executives' treatment of managers, says Georgia State University managerial sciences researcher Bennett Tepper, PhD. Poor treatment of supervisors trickles down to their employees, he suggests.
In a Personnel Psychology study (Vol. 59, No. 1, pages 101-123) published this year, Tepper and his colleagues had National Guard members and their military supervisors take surveys during their weekly meetings. The surveys examined the Guard members' level of distress, their perception of fairness in the military hierarchy's decision-making, the degree to which they thought their boss's supervision was abusive and their gauge of their supervisors' depression. They found that supervisors who perceive being excluded from decision-making-such as being ignored or denied the opportunity to offer input in situations like Guard allocation-are more prone to depression. In turn, depression often results in abusive behavior toward their employees.
"The way bosses are treated ultimately leads to how they treat their employees," Tepper says, noting that abusive behavior ranged from angry outbursts to forcing Guard members to work excessive hours.
In the same vein, in research published in the Academy of Management Journal (Vol. 46, No. 4, pages 486-496), University of Minnesota psychologist Theresa Glomb, PhD, found that when a workplace establishes a bullying norm, other work group members are more likely to act aggressively. Moreover, the people most likely to bully are those who feel bullied.
As such, one person's sense of being bullied can quickly engender a toxic workplace in which bullying spreads, she says.
Once the trickle-down effect begins, it can be difficult to escape, says organizational behavior researcher Kathryne Dupré, PhD, of Memorial University of Newfoundland. In an article published this year in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (Vol. 11, No. 1, pages 13-26), she and psychologist Julian Barling, PhD, examined doctoral students' and correctional service guards' perceptions of unfairness in their workplace and their organizations' sanctions against bullying. They also examined 25 variations of workplace aggression, ranging from a worker spreading rumors about another's work to a worker striking a co-worker, to see which items were most likely to cause the aggressive behavior's severity to escalate.
Dupré and Barling suggest that people often use aggression to gain control over their situation-especially since those who behave aggressively more often feel that their workplace is unjust. To discourage bullying, Dupré suggests that workplaces empower employees, for instance, by seeking and including their input in key decisions.
Ferris agrees, noting that her co-worker's bullying allowed him to usurp her work-increasing his status while marring his competition.
"He wanted me out, and he set me up to look terrible," she recalls.
To avoid such situations, Ferris hopes that the recent wave of bullying research helps companies understand what fosters bullying and how to minimize its negative impact on both the worker and the organization.