Workplace Shaming

Recently, my oldest son came to me about a situation at school. He was being bullied by someone three grades older than him. As a parent, this is one of those conversations you probably dread having. My wife and I successfully handled it by talking to someone at his school. But something came out of the conversation with my son that 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, so I didn’t see any reason not be honest. Workplace bullying and workplace shaming both are certainly 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” is a popular topic in a lot of conversations. But there seems to be a disconnect with the concept of workplace shaming.

Many companies have implemented a zero tolerance policy for workplace bullying. However, many people don’t know the difference between bullying and shaming. And since there is a ton of information out there on this topic, that’s where we’ll begin.

Bullying vs. Shaming

Shaming someone typically occurs not for what a person has done, but for who that person is. The shaming could be because of a physical attribute, race or skin color, for instance. It’s simply 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 seek power at the expense of others while attempting to dominate them. Adult bullies in the workplace, for example, are known to cause toxic atmospheres. These atmospheres diminish performance, destroy interpersonal relationships and erode 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 emotions towards those who hurt them and anyone they felt condoned it. This creates another, much more serious situation.

This type of behavior has lead to some of the most horrific events that played out in the news. How many times did we learn that an 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

You might think this type of behavior isn’t a real threat or something to be concerned about. If you do, I would ask you to suspend that disbelief for one more paragraph.

When someone is bullied or shamed, it causes the victim to feel inadequate. This leads to disempowering thoughts such as, “Everyone must think I’m stupid or weak.”

That inner dialogue has been proven to trigger past memories of similar experiences, which leads to a deeper and more painful experience. Then, the emotional and mental impact leads directly to a physical one. And both of these are a superhighway 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 states 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.

These might include: stress, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, and higher blood pressure to name a few.

The impact on a bullied employee’s 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) the author states 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.” This is because 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 targeted 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 seem to have positive relationships and who doesn’t seem to interact with a group.

  • Focus on job performance.

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.

Your leadership sets the tone for how employees are expected to treat each other. Therefore, make clear in your handbook and by your own actions what type of behavior is permitted. Also outline 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 you permit bullying, the greater the damage to the victim and potential liability to your company.

  • Provide training to both supervisors and employees.

Your policies will mean very little if supervisors don’t understand them and how to enforce them. Therefore, supervisors need to know how to identify bullying, fairly investigate claims, maintain privacy and appropriately discipline the offenders. It’s also important that all employees are aware of their rights and responsibilities to report such behavior.

If they aren’t, they will continue to believe that the employer doesn’t take these situations seriously.

  • Encourage a zero-tolerance environment. 

In the survey mentioned 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. Some even denied it existed.

In those cases, it’s impossible for employees to feel safe or have any confidence. Because of this, they’ll have trouble being productive and happy in their jobs.

  • Call bullying what it is. 

Using terms such as incivility, disrespect, personality conflicts, difficult people, management style, trivializes bullying. It also underestimates the damage it does to the person who was bullied. In other words, not calling bullying “bullying,” in order to avoid offending someone just adds to the injury. After all, these victims’ jobs, careers, and health are threatened as the result.

If this subject has piqued your interest, I recommend grabbing these reads from Amazon. They can help you gain deeper insight 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. And according to Ms. Gordon’s insightful article titled, “How to Confront Workplace Bullying,” these are some to consider:

1. Take care of yourself and learn to recognize bullying

When you realize that you are being bullied, you are less likely to blame yourself or take responsibility. 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? Or maybe to report the incident? How about requesting a transfer?

Only you can decide how you want to address the situation.

3. Learn how to set boundaries

Be direct with the bully about how you plan to address his behavior. Furthermore, learn to be firm, confident and assertive. For example, tell the bully if he continues to threaten your job, you’ll report his behavior to human resources.

4. Keep a journal

Be sure to document any improper behavior. Because 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 or words the offender said. Also, include any witnesses to the event. It might even be helpful to include how it made you feel or how it affected you. Likewise, you should record details about complaints that you filed and the responses you have received.

5. Create a paper trail

If it seems like someone is sabotaging your work, be sure you create a paper trail. This should clearly outline what you’re working on and your progress. Because if a bully is trying to force you out or squash your chances for promotion, the best way to fight back is to make sure others know about your projects. First of all, use e-mails, activity reports and other tools to share your progress with your co-workers and supervisors. Also, be humble in emphasizing your accomplishments. But be sure people are aware of the work you’re doing.

6. Report incidents

Being silent about bullying gives the bully more power and control over you. So when you feel ready, it’s important to report the bullying to a manager, supervisor, or another person in authority.

Remain calm and keep your emotions in check when sharing details about the bullying. After all, overly distraught complaints are distracting and may make the message confusing. So 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. Furthermore, don’t criticize the bully as a person or call him names in the meeting. After all, 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 behavior 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 understand what you’re experiencing and who will provide support. Above all, talk about it. Don’t keep it inside.

10. Seek professional help or counseling

Finally, being targeted by a bully can certainly have a serious impact. It can affect your mood, your self-esteem, and even your physical health. Therefore, it’s important to find some outside help. This is especially true if you start to feel depressed.

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

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).