The workplace bully: the ultimate silencer.

Author:Parker, Kimberly A.


... when people are put in positions ofpower, they start talking more, taking what they want for themselves, ignoring what other people say or want, ignoring how less powerful people react to the behavior, acting more rudely, and generally treating any situation or person as a means for satisfying their own needs ... (Sutton, 2007)

There is a significant body of literature that situates workplace bullying as a significant phenomenon in the American workplace (Lewis, 2006; Lutgen-Sandvik, 2006; Sutton, 2007) and provides evidence that it damages organizations, including difficulties implementing organizational change, lowering organizational commitment, decreasing productivity and diminishing organizational performance (Crothers, Lipinski, & Minutolo, 2009; Girardi et al., 2007; Harvey et al., 2006). The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health deemed workplace bullying to be a form of workplace violence. According to a 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute US Survey, 72% of bullies are bosses, who outrank their targets by at least one level. Similarly, a 2007 Zogby survey of 8,000 adults found that 72% had been abused by a supervisor (Sutton, 2007). Further, organizational communication research has provided evidence via a nationally representative study that in most cases many employees are involved; they range from bullies to silent witness, making the cases that bullying is an organizational problem, and not tied to the pathology of a few bad employees (Namie & Lutgen-Sandvik, 2010).

Bullying is often defined as "prolonged exposure to interpersonal acts of a negative nature ... which make up a highly stressful situation characterized by lack of control" (Hansen, Hogh, & Persson, 2011). The definition also generally includes elements of frequency, intensity, duration and power distance (Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2003; Hoel, Cooper, & Faragher, 2001; Lester, 2009) Most studies argue that workplace bullying, unlike other forms of harassment, are interpersonal in nature and marked by an abuse of power (Lester, 2009). The effects of relational hostility in the workplace are well documented to include decreased mental and physical health (Hansen, Hogh & Persson, 2011; Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2001; Zapf & Einarsen, 2001). The research also provides evidence that workers suffer from "anxiety, depression, burnout, frustration, helplessness ... difficulty concentrating ... lowered self esteem and self efficacy" (Keashly & Neuman, 2005, p. 335). The comments below from an Administrative Assistant, age 48, offer an exemplar of these effects:

"It sucks, because it does cut into your self-esteem and because when you hear all the time that you don't do anything right that you start to wonder, maybe I don't do anything right, you know? Well, at the time, when I was working for her it was horrible on my personal life. It was, not a job that I could go home and forget about, you know. I would be stressed out all evening thinking about going back the next day. It was destructive really to your character and everything and how you thought about yourself, 'cause you heard so much crap all the time about how bad you were doing."

In an effort to expand our understanding of workplace bullying, this paper seeks to explore the rhetorical strategies employed by bullies and the communicative strategies targets employ in response. As is demonstrated in the previous quote, work is integral to employees' lives and identity, so the experiences of those that are bullied affect every aspect of their lives, not simply their work lives. However, their ability to respond to the attacks of the perpetrators is often limited, as they must negotiate responses that allow them to maintain their employment, which limits their responses, and often renders them powerless. While the effects of bullying may infringe on individuals' personal lives, they often do not have the rhetorical strategies available to them in response to bullying that they may have in their personal lives; they are often silenced in the work place, unlike they would be in their personal lives. Therefore, this paper seeks to examine the rhetorical strategies that the targets do (or do not) employ in an effort to manage the attacks of the bully; how do they communicatively respond to these negative attacks?


"As a female, I would have expected to have someone as more of a mentor. This woman saw me as an adversary and took every opportunity to write me up as being insubordinate for sharing ideas or just doing my job." Director of Major Giving, age 30

If the management is tough, but consistent with all employees, most employees will find this fair; however, bullying is a form of abusive supervision where a targeted few are the only ones met with this "tough" style (Namie & Namie, 2011). Bullies tend to "zone in" on a targeted few, causing their misery to grow exponentially. Compared to incivility, bullying is generally focused on one or two individuals; it is a methodical crusade of interpersonal destruction (Namie & Namie, 2011). A Project Manager, age 34, describes how it felt: "So it's a little disheartening to think that, it [bullying] could happen to you; you think it can't happen to you. Disheartened, feel a little saddened that, uh, we haven't come quite as far as we think we have." Additionally, an IT Project Manager, age 54, adds: "It limits the feeling of security. It limits the feeling of loyalty and, um ... it just kind of leaves you with emptiness."

Bullying means that something wrong occurred and that we can identify the individual who is the perpetrator (Namie & Namie, 2011). Bullying is repetitive, uninvited, and performed openly or privately and often leads to psychological or physical damage (Namie & Namie, 2011). As a 59 year-old Benefits Administration and Senior HR Coordinator expressed, "It makes me feel incompetent. It makes me second guess myself. It's affecting my job performance. This has made me physically ill." In sharing the costs physically and in terms of self-confidence a 55 year-old Coordinator shared: "I was frustrated, angry, devalued. It made me question my abilities. My blood pressure was higher, gained some weight because of it; honestly, I knew I was very stressed out over it and I learned to just cope with it best I could, but until it was really over and behind me onto something new, then I realized just how much better I felt."

Personal and Organizational Costs

The suffering of the targets of bullying manifested in overall decreased performance, including diminished morale and motivation, disrupted organization functioning, reduced productivity, and increased turnover (Crawshaw, 2011; Crothers, Lipinski, & Minutolo, 2009). Janus-Bulman, (1992) found that emotional responses, such as shock, despair, anger and helplessness are linked to bullying; others have found links to health problems, such as sleep problems, chronic fatigue, loss of strength, and musculoskeletal complaints (Brodsky, 1976; Einarsen, Raknes, & Mattheisen, 1994). Referencing her sleep patterns and overall disposition, an Academic Advising Counselor, age 33, shared the following: "It was discouraging, it affected my health a lot; I didn't sleep much, tired all day long and still couldn't sleep much the next night and so on. I didn't realize how defeated I was, because I spent so much time trying to be strong on the outside that I didn't realize how defeated I was on inside." In addition to negative emotional responses, bullied workers have a higher risk of suicide (Pompili et al., 2008). Overall, abused employees have poorer attitudes towards work, decreased psychological health and are more likely to suffer from health complaints related to the suffering at work. A Communications/Event Manager, age 28, shared this exemplar regarding her work-related health struggles: "I definitely had a lot of health issues. I had very severe headaches. I was really depressed."

In addition to personal costs, there are organizational costs, including damaging organizational reputation (Lutgen-Sandvik & McDermott, 2008) and company performance (Crothers, Lipinski, & Minutolo, 2009). Interestingly, targets frequently report that their anxiety is not triggered by openly aggressive behavior, but, rather, by those situations where the aggression is more hidden and they feel they may have had some responsibility (Hirigoyen, 2012). For example, often the behavior is hidden under the auspices of furthering organizational goals; as Krasikova, Green and Breton (2013) argued, even when supervisors are pursuing goals outlined by the organization, they can still harm individuals by bullying them using non-verbal or verbal tactics.

Power and Fear

As is illustrated in the opening quote, bullying is often perpetuated by those in power, as the relational hostility is often garnered by those who are "prepared to abuse that imbalance" (Randall, 1997). This unequal power structure leaves the targets vulnerable and unable to defend themselves (Lewis & Orford, 2005); further, targets often have no choice but to remain in the situation, because no one takes their accounts seriously (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, Alberts, 2006) or they are financially dependent on those that abuse them (Tepper, 2000). Hence, they often have little, if any, recourse for rebutting the attacks. In fear-based organizations, employees are so concerned with avoiding blame and humiliation that they cannot help the organization, even when they have the skills to do so (Sutton, 2007). As Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy & Alberts (2007) have noted, bullying obstructs organizational goals and processes. Further exacerbating the problem is that workplace bullying is often perpetuated by organizations that "condone, model, or reward it" (Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2011, p. 8).

"Because this phenomenon is perpetrated...

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