On-the job bullying can take many forms, from a supervisor

Safety from the Emotional Side

When people feel safe, creativity flourishes and problem solving is simplified. Issues are addressed on a timely basis rather than being swept under the rug or put off till they become crises.

Most of us in the safety profession are familiar with federal OSHA's Section 5(a)(1), titled "Duties." Most know the section as the General Duty Clause. It reads:

(a) Each employer

          (1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;

          (2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this act.

(b) Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.

If we examine Cal/OSHA (California) Title 8, Section 3650 (22), we read: "Vehicles shall not be driven in and out of highway trucks and trailers at loading docks until such trucks or trailers are securely blocked or restrained and the brakes set." When one reads the entire section, he/she knows that the section refers to forklifts (powered industrial trucks). Federal OSHA has the same regulation with slightly different wording; 29 CFR Section 1910.178(k)(1) reads: "The brakes of highway trucks shall be set and wheel chocks placed under the rear wheels to prevent the trucks from rolling while they are boarded with powered industrial trucks."

This all is fine and wonderful. Yes, it's great, as well as necessary, to have these regulations in place. But these safety rules and regulations regard the physical realm. How much thought and attention are given to safety from the emotional realm?

How safe do you (as an employee) feel when approaching your boss with an issue, be it computer, accounting, or transportation (just to name a few)? Imagine informing your boss that your computer is running slow. Your boss responds, "Well, I guess you will just have to work a little faster then, won't you?" Then the boss walks out.1 How safe (now) do you feel (emotionally) to speak of anything else you feel is wrong? Aren't you now afraid that the ball will be thrown back in your court, being told "It's all in your head"? Of course. You now are flooded by feelings of ridicule.

Or, how about this? You run the quarterly report and your boss asks how the numbers are looking. You answer that the numbers (unfortunately) don't look good. Your boss snaps back, "Well, you better find some way to make them look good."2 Any honest employee would feel isolated for being told to change reality. After all, if it's raining outside, can the boss order his/her subordinate to change the weather to show clear and sunny skies? Just as the reality of the weather cannot be changed, neither can the reality of financial results.

The feeling of isolation is very real. And whatever one feels is reality. All this can be described as one or two words: bullying and mobbing.

Bullies operate the same as the school yard bully, except in the workplace the bullying is done through emotional, rather than physical, avenues. Bullies spread rumors and gossip about their chosen targets. Also, they often pick on and shout at their targets in public settings. These bullies can range from co-workers all the way up to senior managers. And one should not kid him/herself; even senior managers can be targets. Anyone can be discredited to a point of enough stress as to need professional psychological or psychiatric care.

Occupational health and safety legislation requires employers to provide workplaces that are safe from harm for all employees. However, many employers focus on physical safety, with very little (if any) focus on the employees’ emotional safety. The lack of support for emotional safety can be negatively impacted by bullying, psychological abuse, intimidation, and harassment.

Such behavior can be classified as mobbing.3 The word mob means a disorderly crowd engaged in lawless violence. Derived from the Latin "mobile vulgus," meaning "vacillating crowd," the verb to mob means "to crowd about, attack, or annoy."4

Mobbing, an emotional assault, begins when one becomes the target of disrespectful and harmful behavior. Through innuendo, rumors, and public discrediting, a hostile work environment is created in which one individual gathers others to willingly (or unwillingly) participate in malicious actions to force one out of the workplace.5

Some of Dr. Heinz Leymann's categorized behaviors are listed below (although, for the sake of brevity, not all behaviors are listed under their respective categories):

Category I

1. Employee restricted in self-expression opportunities.

2. Employee constantly interrupted.

3. Yelled at and loudly scolded.

4. Work constantly criticized.

5. Terrorized on telephone.

6. Oral threats made.

7. Written threats sent.

Category II

1. Colleagues forbidden to speak to employee.

2. Employee treated as if invisible.

Category III

1. Employee ridiculed.

2. Decisions always questioned.

Category IV

1. No special tasks for employee.

2. Supervisors take away assignments. Employee continuously given new tasks.

Category V

1. Employee forced to do a physically strenuous job.

2. Threats of physical violence made.6

Some (or all) these behaviors from each of the categories might be able to be exercised simultaneously. Also, very often an employee will be forced to attend meetings in which one or the other extreme occurs; ergo, he/she is totally ignored or he/she is overwhelmed with information that is unable to be properly deciphered.

Employees are damaged to such an extent that they no longer are able to accomplish their tasks. Co-workers, superiors, and subordinates attack their dignity, integrity, and competence repeatedly over a long period of time. In the end they resign, are terminated, or are forced into early retirement. Such behavior is mobbing—workplace expulsion through emotional abuse.7 Could this be classified as workplace violence? In the eyes of this writer, the answer is an astounding yes. Also, federal OSHA and Cal/OSHA8 consider verbal abuse and intimidation as workplace violence the same way as physical violence.

Many workplace violence articles address the issues of physical violence such as a robbery of a retail store, attacks at public service venues, or violence at a workplace by one of the employees him/herself. These issues are very important and are not to be undermined. However, the emotional side of workplace violence is equally (if not more) important. If an employee is constantly belittled and yelled at in public, and (especially) if foul language is directed at him/her, this, too, is workplace violence.

Here is another example. After a few weeks your new boss says, "How are you getting along with everyone in the department?" You say, "Really well. They are a good group of people. There is just this one guy who seems to like to intimidate everyone."

Your boss asks, "Who would that be?"

You tell him it is "J… I..."

Your boss says, "Him? No, he doesn't mean to intimidate people. That is just his style. I am sure you are just taking him wrong. Why don't you talk to him about it?"

You reply, "Well, I am a little afraid of him, to be honest."

Your boss says, "Afraid!? Come on. Grow up. Just talk to him. He can'’t be that bad. Besides, you need to be telling him, not me. I have other things I need to be doing." Then he walks away.

That would be one way he could respond, leaving you with a certain set of feelings. Another way he could respond (with genuine concern) "Oh yeah? Like, how so?" Then, if you explained a bit, he could say, "Yeah, I understand. You aren't the first person who feels that way. I've been concerned about it for a while now. Thanks for telling me. You probably weren't sure whether you should tell me, huh? Like how I would react . . . ."

You reply, "Well, yes I was a little afraid of telling you, but now I am glad I did. Thanks for being so understanding."

In this case, you will feel much freer to share things with your boss, even things you are a little afraid to tell him. This is the kind of environment in which people feel safe. Safe to be honest and safe to be themselves. When people feel safe, creativity flourishes and problem solving is simplified. Issues are addressed on a timely basis rather than being swept under the rug or put off until they become crises.9 Stress might not be as much the employee’s inability to cope with large workloads and unreasonable demands from bullying managers as possibly the result of the employer’s failure to provide a safe place to work.

On-the-job bullying can take many forms, from a supervisor's verbal abuse and threats to cruel comments or relentless teasing by a co-worker.10 Some states have worked to pass laws in this arena. New York Assembly Member Steve Englebright (D-4th District) has been the prime sponsor of AB3250, which addresses workplace bullying. The first paragraph reads…

"S 760. LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS AND INTENT. THE LEGISLATURE HEREBY FINDS THAT THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC WELL-BEING OF THE STATE IS DEPENDENT UPON HEALTHY AND PRODUCTIVE EMPLOYEES. AT LEAST ONE-THIRD OF ALL EMPLOYEES DIRECTLY EXPERIENCE HEALTH ENDANGERING WORKPLACE BULLYING, ABUSE AND HARASSMENT DURING THEIR WORKING LIVES. SUCH FORM OF MISTREATMENT IS FOUR TIMES MORE PREVALENT THAN SEXUAL HARASSMENT ALONE. WORKPLACE BULLYING, MOBBING AND HARASSMENT CAN INFLICT SERIOUS HARM UPON TARGETED EMPLOYEES, INCLUDING FEELINGS OF SHAME AND HUMILIATION, SEVERE ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES, IMPAIRED IMMUNE SYSTEMS, HYPERTENSION, INCREASED RISK OF CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE, AND SYMPTOMS CONSISTENT WITH POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER." 

The last sentence reads, "S 761. 'ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT' MEANS AN EMPLOYMENT CONDITION WHEN AN EMPLOYER OR ONE OR MORE OF ITS EMPLOYEES, ACTING WITH INTENT TO CAUSE PAIN OR DISTRESS TO AN EMPLOYEE, SUBJECTS THAT EMPLOYEE TO ABUSIVE CONDUCT THAT CAUSES PHYSICAL HARM, PSYCHOLOGICAL HARM OR BOTH."

Though the setting for bullying has changed from the school yard, the dynamics remain the same. Workplace bullies exert their power to intimidate, exclude, and/or belittle their targets (e.g., coercing one to take a position in a meeting; whispering and walking away when a person approaches, and criticizing one’s job performance in public). Regardless of style, the end result is that workplace bullying has serious repercussions.11

Although workplace bullies usually do not attack physically, bullying still impacts the employee physically. You (most likely) are being bullied at work if:

  • You constantly receive nasty emails questioning your work.
  • Your stomach constantly bothers you.
  • You experience more headaches than usual.
  • You have more trouble sleeping than before.
  • You find yourself zig-zagging from the front entrance to your desk, hoping to go undetected by “radar” instead of going directly to your desk.
  • All employees in your department are called individually (in rotation) into the boss’s office every hour to tell him/her what you are doing, while you are not given the opportunity to defend yourself.
  • The human resources manager just happens to be everywhere you are (stalking) and feigns politeness or by telling you (in public) something to the effect that this door is not the employee entrance, but instead, the guest entrance.

Ways to Respond
Here are some steps you can take to stop this form of harassment:

  • Keep written documentation of every time you are bullied. Include specifics of who, what, when, where, and why (as in an accident investigation). This will demonstrate that the harassment is ongoing.
  • Report bullying to your supervisor. If the supervisor is the bully, report the bullying to his/her boss. Uncomfortable as this might be, this form of harassment must be reported as sexual harassment would be reported. Depending on the level of harassment, there could be grounds for legal charges to be pressed. Such unacceptable behavior must be brought to the attention of others who can successfully intervene.12
  • If the bully is a senior manager or CEO, resolving a complaint can be tricky for a low-level human resources employee.13

In the beginning of this paper, examples were cited of the employee seeking support for a slow computer and the result of reporting that the numbers do not look good. The response was to cause the employee to be flooded with feelings of ridicule. Two more examples follow.

1. You coordinate the inbound transportation of product to your company. You are flooded with transportation work orders and on tight deadlines. You phone a carrier to assign various loads to be hauled. They accept. All is well, right? Wrong. Six days later the carrier calls and says that they were unable to dedicate equipment to move the loads, and thus, must return them.

You appeal to your boss for help to find alternate carriers. He snaps, "Your public frustrations are unprofessional. They're uncalled for. Now just go back to your desk and do your job." A better result would be for your boss to be supportive and to help you find other carriers and discontinue using this carrier as they have been notorious for (first) accepting loads and then (surprisingly) returning them.

2. You, as a senior manager at a mid-sized company, interface with a client's liaison. The liaison has been known for micromanaging and going off on tirades. At 2 a.m., while you are home sleeping, he/she calls, sounding drunk. He/she goes off on a tirade and, using foul language, yells at you relentlessly for a long time, causing you much emotional upset.

You file a formal complaint with your boss about the incident. Your boss reassures you that he/she will investigate the issue. You feel better. Days later, you're called into your boss's office. In the office with both of you are a vice president and the human resources manager.

Then comes the double-cross. The human resources manager hands you a document that your boss instructs you to sign. On one side is a statement saying that the incident didn't happen and that you were not abused. Failure to sign would result in the requirement to sign the other side ... your resignation. You cave and sign the document.

And, on top of that, your boss orders you to apologize to the liaison for falsely accusing him/her of inappropriate behavior. The liaison subsequently threatens you (verbally) and tells you to not ever call him/her drunk again.14 This happens although he/she has previously done the same with prior managers at your company.

A better result would be for your boss to show support and stand up to the client and let it be known that such behavior is unacceptable.

You have a right to feel safe at work, whether in the physical or emotional realm. Unfortunate as it is that bullying is not something that all grow out of, you still do not have to put up with it. You have a right to feel safe and comfortable at work. Whether the bully is in the lunchroom or the boardroom, he/she must learn that such behavior is unacceptable.15 Companies that have not taken steps to have and/or enforce anti-bullying policies need to do so.

Epilogue
The machines are guarded. No one can get his/her hands caught at the points of operation. The lockout/tagout procedures all are in place. The forklift operators have conducted their pre-trip inspections prior to checking them out (as required). Also, the forklift operators' certifications are up to date. Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) are near water sources. All proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is being worn for the job. This includes ear plugs, proper gloves, proper respirators, hard hats, etc.

The trenches are properly shored to prevent cave-ins. The bloodborne pathogen regulations are being followed to the letter. The first aid kits are properly stocked. The hazardous materials permits are updated in order for the hazmat certified drivers to haul hazardous materials. All hazmat training (general awareness, function specific, and safety) is up to date. All recordkeeping is in order. But wait a minute! What's missing?

References
1. Hein, S., "Emotional Honesty, Emotional Safety in Organizations," http://www.eqi.org.bizartl.htm, April 2003, p. 1
2. Ibid, p. 2
3. Davenport, Noa, Ruth Distler, Gail Purcell Elliot, "Mobbing, Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace," Civil Society Publishing, Ames, IA, p. 20
4. Ibid., p. 21
5. Ibid., p. 33
6. Ibid., pp. 36 & 37
7. Ibid., p. 20
8. California OSHA; California…writer's residence.
9. Hein, op. cit., p. 1
10. Hananel, Sam, "Workplace Bullying Emerging as Major Employment Liability Battleground," http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2013/03/04/283420.htm?utm_source=twit, p. 1
11. Hutton, Shannon, "What to Do if You're Being Bullied at Work," http://excelle.monster.com/benefits/articles/4095-what-to-do-if-you’re-being-bullied-at-work, p. 1
12. Ibid., p. 2
13. Hananel, op. cit., p. 3
14. Writer's conversation with actual manager involved
15. Hutton, op. cit., p. 2

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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