Erica Pinsky

Bullying Bleeds Profits

This article appeared in the October 28 - November 8, 2008 issue of Business in Vancouver



Jim used to love his job. He had been a happy employee, a team player and top performer who consistently delivered impressive results. Now he wakes up every day feeling sick, and dreads the thought of having to go in to the office. Work has become a nightmare. He has to endure constant criticism, public ridicule, sarcasm and fits of unpredictable rage from his current boss. One day Jim wakes up and just can’t face it. Rather than go to work, he heads for his doctor’s office.


Although Jim doesn’t realize it, he has been the target of workplace bullying, a growing problem now affecting 1 in 4 workers in Canada, and 7 out of 10 workers in the US. The Canada Safety Council estimates that workplace bullying is at least four times more common than harassment, and affects up to 75% of workers in some organizations.


Workplace bullying is causing companies to bleed away their profits to the tune of $20,000 per employee per year. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines workplace bullying as "…repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people, acts or verbal comments that could 'mentally' hurt or isolate a person in the workplace, and the assertion of power through aggression." It causes employees to spend up to 52% of their time at work dealing with the effects of being bullied, rather than focusing on job they were hired to do.


Jim’s experience is all too common in today’s workplaces. Most of us don’t even know what workplace bullying is. We fail to recognize the signs. Workers tend to say nothing and just put up with disrespectful behaviour. Employees that do complain often find that their situation is incorrectly labeled a "personality conflict." As a result, the behaviour continues until it is too late, and, like Jim, employees end up so distressed they can no longer work. In fact, up to 80% of bullied employees end up out of the workplace.


Many leaders and Human Resources practitioners don’t realize the extent of bullying behaviour. One reason is that bullies can be calculating and manipulative. The face they present to their own bosses is charming and agreeable. In fact, bullies are often hard to identify because their behaviour is generally covert and not witnessed. On one hand they appear to be civil and cooperative, while they do everything in their power to undermine their target.


Victims of bullying are often bright, competent, hard-working and popular employees. As a result, the effect on the workplace can be devastating. Morale, productivity, and teamwork all plummet while absenteeism, conflict and turnover increase. A fear based environment is created by the bully, who is often in a position of power (a manger or supervisor). Bullying causes havoc in the workplace. In some cases, workplace violence will be the unfortunate result.


It is all about power and control. Workplace bullying thrives in organizations with traditional command and control based cultures. It flourishes in workplaces where aggressive and competitive practices are encouraged. Disrespect produces a fear based culture where good people are afraid to speak up.


In order to create a respectful culture where employees feel safe and can focus on their jobs, companies need to take action. They have to start asking questions about power in their organization. They need to figure out who has it and how it is being used. Are the leaders leading with respect or intimidating with power?


The next step is to adopt a clear anti-bullying policy. Everyone must be educated so that they will recognize bullying when it happens. Employees must be empowered to speak up when they witness bullying behaviour, and those that bully should be coached to change. To support the policy, employers must adopt respect as a core organizational value and lead by example. Leaders must hold themselves and everyone else accountable until being respectful becomes the "way it is" in the organization.

Pinsky’s writing style makes this book an easy read for managers, decision-makers, human resource professionals and business owners and anyone else interested in building a respectful workplace. She provides tangible advice interwoven with the stories of real organizations who demonstrate on a daily basis the value of promoting a respectful workplace. Pinsky ensures that readers can glean from the book information they need to take action. A respectful  workplace culture is a road “paved” over time with trust and support; and Pinsky’s book provides the tools you need to arrive at your destination.

Catherine M. Mattice
President, Civility Partners, LLC & SME on Workplace Bullying