Even as companies talk the talk about equality and fair treatment, they're still struggling to walk the walk when it comes to bullying. A 2017 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), for instance, found that roughly 60.3 million people are affected by bullying in the workplace. But to rub salt in the wound, new studies now reveal that others don't hesitate to point fingers at the victims.

Giving bullies a pass. 

Researchers from the University of Central Florida's College of Business conducted four studies examining workplace bullying. For the first two studies, the team surveyed employees and supervisors. That work showed supervisors have a tendency to see victims as being bullies themselves. The second two surveys had participants evaluate workers based on work performance descriptions. Participants also considered how employees were treated and how they treated others. These studies showed people see victims as bullies even when clearly told that the victim didn't mistreat anybody or there is evidence showing the victim isn't a bully. Victimized workers also receive lower job performance evaluations, and all four studies found evidence that bullies were less likely to be seen as deviant if their supervisors thought they were good performers.

Biases flip who gets blamed.

Shannon Taylor, co-author of the article summarizing the studies, says the problem sits with the cognitive biases people have. Those biases allow us to gloss over negative traits or behaviors, or conversely, to crucify others for having a single flaw. They are a big reason why people who behave badly--at work or elsewhere--don't receive any consequences, often for years, and why it's so difficult for those who suffer to get any real justice. They also give some context for additional WBI stats, which show the most overwhelming response to bullying from employers is to do a "sham" investigation (46 percent) or, worse, nothing at all (25 percent).

What bosses can do.

Taylor's recommendation, perhaps predictably, is for supervisors to get bias training. The hope is that, with greater awareness of the biases present, it will be easier for supervisors to change their behavior. That, in turn, would make it harder for bullies to act out and keep deserving workers from projects, promotions, or other benefits.

But I'm an efficiency nerd. I would much rather prevent the biases from taking root in the first place than spend the energy and resources to erase them. That's a tall order, to be frank, because people start learning society's proverbial pecking order when they're young.

Between 25 and 33 percent of students claim to have been bullied at school. Most of that bullying happens during the middle school years, when social groups and personal identity start becoming more defined. But with two kids in elementary school, I can tell you from personal experience the problem is already rearing its ugly head long before kids' feet can touch the floor of the big yellow bus. Leaving those who bully in school unchecked can ingrain the idea in the bullies' minds that it's perfectly OK to treat others poorly. That behavior then can transfer over into adulthood and into the workplace.

So while addressing bullying with supervisor bias training isn't going to hurt, it also serves businesses well to attack the problem proactively when leaders are still the youngest of children. Just as supervisors can be taught to see their biases, teachers, parents, and other members of the community can be taught through specific business-funded initiatives to see them and to teach their children more respect and inclusion. Or rather, they can be taught to allow their children to continue respect and inclusion, using direct modeling as a means of simple behavioral reinforcement. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers by nature are incredibly trusting and accepting, as hundreds of Youtube videos with ecstatic children literally embracing despite race, disability, and other factors demonstrate. It's just that they learn to squash others by watching us (and older kids), and then, because we on some level know bullying is nasty, we naiively beg children to do as elders say, not as elders do.

In the meantime, let's face where we're at. The problem isn't necessarily a lack of clear bullying policies. It's in the enforcement of those policies. So start by ensuring that your own guidelines include a system of checks and balances that permit a neutral analysis of situations that come up. There should be incentives and protections for truthful reporting of negative behavior. 

Second, remember that both bullies and the supervisors who blame victims are human. Like everybody else, they like group acceptance, meaning that if enough people put positive peer pressure on them, it's more likely that they'll make better choices and behave better. So, assuming you've already tried to address the situation with the bully or unbelieving supervisor one-on-one, one of the best things you can do if you find yourself in a bad situation is to try to gather team members behind you and have them clarify directly and indirectly to the bully and supervisor what the team will and will not tolerate. The more role models you can use to hedge in the bully and higher-ups, the better. 

As you better enforce your policies and rally the troops for modeling, painstakingly document everything, and don't be afraid to seek advice from mentors. And while it's legitimate for victims to acknowledge how they feel, encourage them to emphasize how managerial acknowledgment of their complaints ultimately will be beneficial to everyone's work and the vision of the company. 

But if all that's a no-go and you're a victim yourself, get out of the toxic situation. That can be tough emotionally and logistically, but it's loads better than sacrificing your self-confidence, self-esteem and success. 

Published on: Mar 12, 2019
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