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July 10, 2014

Workshop: How to handle office bullies

Paula Davis remembers a job interview in which she was asked, point blank: “Do you mind if you get blamed for things that aren’t your fault?”

She declined that job.

But what can be done when such practices happen where you’re already working? Do we always realize when we’re being bullied?

Davis, assistant vice chancellor for diversity in the Schools of the Health Sciences, presented a workshop on workplace bullying for staff members last month.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s a huge issue here on campus,” Davis told attendees, “but, people being people, we think it’s a good topic to address.”

The state’s Department of Labor and Industry defines bullying as repeated, unreasonable actions that aim to intimidate someone, and that create a risk to health or safety.

“Bullies are more likely to be supervisors, but they often are peers, and sometimes are subordinates,” Davis said. “We all know people who would sell their grandmas for a dime … and make sure they are in front and you are in the background.”

One bad action by a supervisor or colleague does not constitute bullying; bullying is a series of acts with negative consequences for the bully’s target. Bullying usually involves an abuse of power. It differs from harassment: unwelcome, offensive acts, including those protected against discrimination by city, state or federal laws.

Bullying may take many forms: making someone the butt of practical jokes, excessive monitoring, work sabotage, spreading rumors, rude behavior, excluding someone, swearing at or humiliating a co-worker, or treating someone differently than other colleagues.

A bully’s motivation may stem from many factors, Davis said, including a misguided attempt to force the resignation of an employee whom he disfavors. She said bullies also are driven by a need to compensate for their own inadequacies or a need to control one area of their lives when others are out of control.

A 2000 U.S. Hostile Workplace Survey by the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute found that 94 percent of bullying victims experienced severe anxiety and 84 percent had disrupted sleep.

Other common symptoms included those that resemble PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), as well as shame, exhaustion, depression, substance abuse and panic attacks.

“The impact on the workplace is pretty dire,” Davis added. A single bully can cost an organization a half-million dollars in a year, she said, due to the target taking sick leave or quitting, an overall loss of productivity throughout the office and the cost of investigating the situation.


Giving the silent treatment to a fellow employee seemed like an obvious bullying situation to Pitt staffers participating in the workshop.

“The silent treatment is pretty brutal,” offered one female staffer.

“If Jason isn’t willing to communicate with Burt, then work comes to a grinding halt,” Davis added.

Other situations weren’t quite as clear. If your boss feels your work performance has declined and she notes it in your performance appraisal, some attending the workshop thought that was bullying. Davis called it “appropriate. The supervisor could have had a prior conversation with [you] … but it’s not bullying.”

Other situations more obviously were bullying. Davis presented a hypothetical situation in which an employee named Ellen had negotiated an 8:30 a.m. start time due to child-care duties. Then her supervisor set a monthly staff meeting for 7 a.m. Ellen reminded her boss about her start time and pledged to arrive as close to 7 a.m. as possible.

But at each 7 a.m. meeting her boss announced: “Ellen, since you can’t seem to get here on time, I’m going to cut $15,000 from your budget.”

Such a line “might have been a funny joke one time…” said one participant.

What can be done about bullying? The perpetrators need to be confronted, Davis said. “You need to be able to look someone in the eye and say ‘Stop it. You’re making me uncomfortable.’” But, she admits, that doesn’t always work.

The next recourse is to contact your supervisor, who “is empowered and should look at that situation and see if they can make it stop.”

It’s important to collect data and details about the incidents that add up to bullying, she said. “That documentation should be in your purse and going home with you every day,” she cautioned.

And those with bullying claims must be prepared to tell their story calmly, coherently and repeatedly. If no satisfaction for a complaint is obtained by going through departmental channels, faculty and staff can go to the Office of Affirmative Action, Diversity and Inclusion, Human Resources or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The workplace, Davis concluded, is not a place where everyone is going to “clasp hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’” at all times. “I don’t personally tend to be the most timely person in the world,” she said.

But true understanding is possible. “Folks who know me give me lots of leeway. We come to a meeting of the minds.” People who are together in other aspects of life find ways to cooperate as well. “We find a way to work together. Anyone who is married knows that.”

—Marty Levine