Workplace bullying can happen suddenly and without provocation. It can happen face to face, over the phone, in an email or via text. It can take the form of an insult, shout or unfair criticism. Some experience it as an obscene gesture, slanderous statement or act meant to isolate them from others, and it can be particularly difficult for those 50 and over. Many are afraid to acknowledge or even call bullying by name, despite how familiar it is: According to a 2015 survey of more than 300 workers by the staffing firm OfficeTeam, 35 percent of respondents said they have had an office bully. And it's not always the boss: A 2014 CareerBuilder survey found that a coworker is just as likely to be the perpetrator.
The Workplace Bullying Institute, an educational organization dedicated to ending workplace bullying, defines on-the-job bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators and abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating or intimidating or that prevents work from getting done or includes verbal abuse.
Andrew Faas, a workplace bullying expert and author of The Bully's Trap, says bullies bully because they can, and in most organizations it is condoned, accepted as a method to motivate and even expected. Recent news headlines have described workplace intimidation at many big businesses, including Amazon, Massey Energy and UPS.
"Because of the Great Recession, office bullying in recent years has gotten far worse," says Faas. "In trying to lower costs, many organizations have particularly targeted older workers, bullying them to the extent that they quit."
Case in point: A 51-year-old independent insurance agent from Pompano Beach, Fla., who asked to remain anonymous as she considers litigation, recently quit her job at a major insurance company after being continually hassled by higher-ups. She says she was forced to work grueling 11-hour days, six days a week (independent agents are normally allowed to set their own schedules), report her every action and location to supervisors, and endure verbal abuse and age and gender discrimination.
"If I didn't follow their rules, I wasn't given any prospects to call. If I spoke up, I was yelled at in front of everybody at the office. And unlike my male coworkers, I was expected to split my sales with a male agent," she says. "I was pretty stressed out for a long time, but I refused to give up on my career and stop believing in myself." She has since left that job for a better position.