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.
Elizabeth Lombardo, a Chicago-based psychologist, says bullied workers often have difficulty concentrating, making decisions and mentally and physically being effective at their job.
"People who are bullied for a prolonged period of time can start to develop psychological issues such as low self-esteem, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms," says Lombardo. "Bullying also adversely affects performance, productivity, morale and the company's bottom line."
Lombardo adds that workplace bullying can be particularly challenging for workers age 50 and up. "Older workers can experience age prejudice and stereotypes, such as 'older people can't keep up with new technology,' which can lead to condescending comments, assumptions about abilities, and avoidance of working with older coworkers. They can experience resentment from younger coworkers, too, who may be jealous of the success of someone with more experience," she says. The challenge of finding a new job as an older worker can add to their stress and feeling of being trapped in their current position, she adds.
Workplace intimidation can also be more harmful to the physical and mental health of age 50-plus workers. "Research shows that stress has a greater impact on older adults versus younger adults. This can come in the form of cognitive effects like difficulty concentrating, emotional effects such as feeling more anxious, and physical effects like a weaker immune system," says Lombardo. "For some who are 50 and older, these are crucial years to be making money, so there is the stress of needing to be employed, being fearful of trying to find another job or being fired because of their age or their cost to the company."
What you can do
If you believe you are the target of a workplace bully, the first step is to realize that you are not alone, powerless or at fault. The second step is to diagnose and acknowledge the problem, and the last, to do something about it before it gets worse.
"Start to keep a private daily log of incidents. Include direct quotations whenever possible, and save related emails and relevant materials," recommends Deb LaMere, vice president of employee engagement at Minneapolis-based Ceridian. Next, seek advice from someone you trust in your organization. Talk with your manager if the bully is a coworker, customer or vendor. If your boss is the bully, talk with a trusted HR representative. Refer to your employer's policy on harassment in your employee handbook or intranet. Your company's employee assistance program can also provide confidential support.
Additionally, LaMere suggests these tips:
- Try to stay calm in the bully's presence and avoid emotional reactions.
- Look the bully in the eye when you're being targeted.
- Speak in a steady, controlled voice when responding to the bully.
- Take good care of yourself by getting enough rest, talking to supportive friends and practicing deep-breathing exercises.
- Consider looking elsewhere for employment.
The good news is that, as of this writing, 30 states have introduced some version of anti-bullying legislation, better known as the Healthy Workplace Bill.
The bad news is that office bullying is not yet protected against by law, unless there is physical abuse or it can be shown that you are being targeted because of your race, gender, nationality, age, sexual orientation or other status protected by law, says Marc J. Siegel, labor and employment attorney with Siegel & Dolan Ltd. in Chicago.
"This makes it difficult to seek recourse through legal channels," Siegel notes. "But if you aren't in any of the protected classes I mentioned, you can still take your complaint to HR, ask them to initiate an investigation, and hire an attorney to send a complaint letter."
You can do all that while looking for a new position.
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