Workplace ShamingUnsplash

Recently I had to have a talk with my oldest son who was being bullied in school by someone three grades older than him. As a parent, this is one of the few conversations you dread having. Suffice it to say, the problem was successfully handled by my wife and I talking to our son as well as the school, but something came out of that conversation I wasn’t expecting. You see, my son looked me straight in the eyes and asked me if there were bullies at work. I looked at him straight in the eyes and told him the truth. The answer was yes.

He’s almost seven and I didn’t see any reason not be honest as workplace bullying and workplace shaming both are a part of life.

“What seemed like a teaching moment with my son, suddenly turned into a coaching moment for myself.”

Nowadays, the word “shaming” has come to the forefront of many conversations around the world and although companies around the world have implemented a zero tolerance policy for workplace bullying there seems to be a disconnect with the concept of workplace shaming. In fact, many people don’t know how to define bullying vs. shaming and since there is a ton of information out there on this topic, that’s where we will begin.

Bullying vs. Shaming

Shaming someone typically occurs not for what a person has done, but for who that person is being, such as their physical attribute, race or skin color. It is a demonstration of the other person’s prejudices.

Bullying, on the other hand, is meant to humiliate and often physically harm or hurt someone perceived as weaker. Bullies strive to seek power at the expense of others while exerting dominating tendencies. There is no remedial aspect of bullying. Adult bullies in the workplace, for example, are known to cause toxic atmospheres that diminishes performance, destroys interpersonal relationships and erodes company culture.

The psychological scars of both are real, raw and relevant to the victim. The victims of shaming and bullying are sometimes prone to turning their pain and emotional state towards those who hurt them and anyone whom they felt condoned the pain which creates another a much more serious situation. This type of behavior has lead to some of the most horrific events play out in the news as we learn the assailant was a victim of bullying or constant abuse.

The bottom line: neither shaming nor bullying can exist without a victim and there is no place for this behavior in or out of the workplace.

The Impact Is Real

For those who might scoff at the idea that this type of behavior isn’t a real threat or something to be concerned about, I would ask you to suspend our disbelief for one more paragraph.

When someone is bullied or shamed it causes the victim to feel inadequate causing the employee to feel badly about themselves and there’s a loss of self-esteem. This downslide leads to disempowering thoughts such as, “Everyone must think I am stupid or weak” This inner dialogue has been proven to trigger past memories of similar experiences which lead to a deeper and more painful experience. The emotional and mental impact leads directly to a physical one and both of these are a super highway to poor performance and lackluster employee engagement.

According to bullying expert Sherri Gordon, the author of over 20 books on the subject – the impact in the workplace is quite extensive. She goes on to state that, “If you’re a target of bullies in the workplace, you probably start each week with a pit of anxiety in your stomach. Then, you count down the days until the weekend or next vacation.” Inappropriate behavior by adult bullies may include:

  • Berating people
  • Stealing credit
  • Excluding others
  • Making snide remarks
  • Threatening others
  • Unfair criticism

Bullying has been known to cause a myriad of physical and psychological health problems, including: stress, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble sleeping and higher blood pressure to name a few. The impact on a bullied employees performance is also very real. She cites some of the top issues as being:

  • Having trouble making decisions
  • An incapacity to work or concentrate
  • A loss of self-esteem
  • Lower productivity

Bullied workers not only lose motivation, they lose time because they are preoccupied with:

  • Trying to defend themselves
  • Avoiding the bully
  • Networking for support
  • Ruminating about the situation
  • Planning how to deal with the situation

But wait, there’s more. In the full article (here) it goes on to state that in addition to disrupting the work environment and impacting worker morale it can also:

  • Reduce productivity
  • Create a hostile work environment
  • Promote absenteeism
  • Impact workers compensation claims
  • Result in costly, and possibly embarrassing legal issues

Other costly effects on the employer include:

  • Increased use of sick leave, health care claims and staff turnover
  • Erosion of employee loyalty and commitment
  • Additional costs to recruit and train new employees
  • Poor public image and negative publicity
  • Increased risk of legal action

What You Can Do About It

When discussing “what” to do about this type of behavior, we must also consider “how” it should be addressed and by “whom” as there are two distinct parties involved. The first are the individuals – in this particular case the victims. The second are the companies/employers where this type of behavior is taking place. Let’s start with what companies can begin to do or simply reinforce current policies.

In this fantastic Huffpost articleMargaret Jacoby pointed out some steps EMPLOYERS can and should start implementing:

  • Know what bullying looks like. In a professional environment, this includes repeated mistreatment including verbal humiliation, persistent and unwarranted criticism, isolation and exclusion from social activities. Obvious signs are physical and overtly verbal abuse, but the subtler signs include sabotage of a person’s efforts to succeed.
  • Look out for targets of bullying behavior. Certain types of co-workers tend to be targets for workplace bullies – those who are very skilled at their jobs, favorites of management, those well-liked in the company and those not particularly aggressive. Take note of those who seems to have positive relationships and who doesn’t seem to interact with a group.
  • Focus on job performance and avoid negative comments unrelated to the job or the task at hand. Comments such as “any dummy could do this job” can be viewed as bullying. Train your managers and supervisors on appropriate ways to provide constructive criticism to workers without resorting to name-calling or using negative personal comments.
  • Promote a positive workplace cultureYour leadership sets the tone for how employees are expected to treat each other. Make clear in your handbook and by your own actions what type of behavior is permitted and what behaviors are expressly prohibited. Provide clear directions for reporting allegations and prohibit retaliation against those who do complain.
  • Investigate complaints promptly. Don’t ignore direct complaints or rumors of bullying in your workplace. Take immediate action because the longer the bullying is permitted to occur, the greater the damage to the victim and potential liability to your company.
  • Provide training to both supervisors and employees. Your policies will mean little if supervisors don’t understand them and how to enforce them. Supervisors need to know how to identify bullying, fairly investigate claims, maintain privacy and appropriately discipline the offenders. And, if employees are not made aware of their right and responsibility to report such behavior, they will continue to work under the assumption that the employer does not take this seriously.
  • Encourage a zero-tolerance environment. In the survey noted previously, bullied workers were asked how the employer handled the situation. The majority of bullies were found to be bosses or supervisors and 72% of those surveyed felt their employer rationalized or even encouraged a culture of bullying or denied it even existed. In those cases, it is impossible for employees to feel safe or have any confidence or ability to be productive and happy in their jobs.
  • Call bullying what it is. Using euphemisms such as incivility, disrespect, personality conflicts, difficult people, management style, trivializes bullying and is a grave disservice to those being bullied. Not calling bullying “bullying,” in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of those who made the bullying possible, adds to the injury done to bullied individuals whose jobs, careers, and health have been threatened as the result.

If this subject has peaked your interest I recommend grabbing these reads from Amazon for a deeper dive into workplace shaming and positive company culture:

As an EMPLOYEE and potential victim of workplace bullying or shaming, there are certain empowering and necessary actions one should take. According to Ms. Gordon’s insightful article titled: “How to Confront Workplace Bullying”, she states that there are necessary actions to consider:

  1. Take care of yourself and learn to recognize bullying. When you realize that you are being bullied, you will be less likely to blame yourself or take responsibility for something that isn’t your fault. Remember, bullying is a choice the bully makes, not something defective in you.
  2. Realize that you can change your response. Although it is impossible to change someone who doesn’t want to change, you can change how you respond. Take some time to think about how you want to handle the situation. Do you want to search for a new job? Do you want to report the incident? Do you want to request a transfer? Only you can decide how you want to address the situation.
  3. Learn how to set boundaries. Be upfront and direct with the bully about how you plan to address his behavior. Learn to be firm, confident and assertive. For instance, you could tell the bully if he continues to threaten you with job loss and to sabotage your work, that you will report his behavior to human resources.
  4. Keep a journal. Be sure to document any improper behavior. This information will help managers or outside organizations take action. Be specific about what you write down. Include the date, the time, the location, the incident that occurred or words that were said and any witnesses to the event. It also may be helpful to include how it made you feel or how it affected you. You also should record details about complaints that you filed and the responses you have received.
  5. Create a paper trail. If you notice your work is being sabotaged, be sure you create a paper trail outlining what you are working on and what you have accomplished. If a bully is trying to force you out or squashes your chances for promotion, the best way to fight back is to make sure others are kept abreast of your projects. Use e-mails, activity reports and other tools to share with your co-workers and supervisors what you are doing. Be humble in emphasizing your accomplishments, but be sure people are aware of the work you are doing.
  6. Report incidents. Being silent about bullying gives the bully more power and control over you. When you feel ready, you need to report the bullying to a manager, supervisor, or another person in a position of authority. Remain calm and keep your emotions in check when sharing details about the bullying. Overly distraught complaints are distracting and may make the message confusing. Also, be consistent with details. It may be helpful to write out what you want to say ahead of time.
  7. Keep your report relevant. In other words, share only specific details about the bully’s behavior. Don’t make assumptions or exaggerate details. And don’t criticize the bully as a person or call him names in the meeting. It’s the inappropriate behavior that needs to be addressed. Keep the focus there.
  8. Seek outside assistance and find help for your situation. Report the bullying to the bully’s manager or supervisor. Bullying is a big issue that cannot be handled alone. If the bully is the owner or the manager, consider filing a complaint.
  9. Surround yourself with empowering people. Find people who can understand what you are experiencing and who will provide support. It helps to talk about what you are experiencing, so don’t keep it inside.
  10. Seek professional help or counseling. Being targeted by a bully can have serious consequences. It can affect your mood, your self-esteem, and even your physical health. Be sure to find some outside assistance, especially if you notice you are feeling depressed.

The floor is yours: What can you do to prevent workplace bullying and shaming?

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With Leadership,

Joshua Miller

Joshua Miller is a creative leader and impactful executive coach.

His career spans both the advertising world and the world of leadership. In advertising, he was the creative lead, responsible for the campaign strategy for Fortune 100 brands. Today, he is an innovator. He’s supporting the executive development and change management for many of the same companies.

Joshua studied at Syracuse University, NYU and Stanford. He combines that background with his deep knowledge of organizational behavior, performance and change management. He focuses on the analysis, design, development, delivery, and evaluation of scalable and global talent development solutions programs.

Joshua is a Master Certified Coach. He trained with the International Coaching Federation and CTI (The Coaches Training Institute).

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