Surviving bullying in the workplace

March 1, 2013
Bullies typically seek control over their victims. Are you a victim?
Bullies typically seek control over their victims. Are you a victim?

by Claudine Paula Drew, RDH, MS, EDD

Mary Jane Swartz, RDH, BS, has completed treatment on her 60-year-old patient, Freda, whom she escorts to the front desk to make a six-month continuing-care appointment. Freda is pleased with her treatment outcome as she has been adhering to her preventive oral health-care plan that Mary helped her develop.

This positive patient-hygienist rapport has been instrumental in changing Freda's behavior. The staff overhears Freda asking for her next appointment to be with Mary only. She is fond of her and prefers that Mary treat her. The office team overhears her compliments and praise.

Mary's coworker, Janet Douglas, RDH, also overhears these comments. Janet does not care for Mary and has been bullying her. This additional praise from a former patient of Janet's only adds to her dislike.

Janet has been employed in the office for 20 years and has the ear of her coworkers. She continually faults Mary and her accomplishments. Janet spreads false rumors about Mary and undermines her with her patients anytime she can. She has also attempted to turn the office staff members against Mary.

What can Mary do? She likes her boss and loves the patients. How can she handle this and make it stop?

Mary is a victim of workplace bullying.

Definitions of bullying

Bullying is the act of gaining power over another individual; it can be physical, verbal, or psychological. Workplace bullying refers to a process in which the victim is subjected to a series of systematic attacks from a fellow worker, coworkers, or supervisor that encroach on the victim's civil rights. It is aggressive behavior involving intentional harm. It creates an imbalance of power between the victim and the bully and is repeated over a period of time.1

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson reports in her RDH column that the Workplace Bullying Survey 2010 concluded 35% of workers experience bullying firsthand. Sixty-two percent of the bullies are men and 58% of their victims are women. The female bully will victimize other females 80% of the time. The majority (68%) of bullying occurs in same-gender cases. Bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment.2 Dr. Jackie Humans, RN,3 states that bullying occurs in all occupations and workplaces. However, it happens to a higher degree in the health-care industry, educational environments, and nonprofit organizations. Workers in the business arena will expect occasional bullying and lack of civility, but those in the "helping industry" are blindsided many times. They expect a kinder, more caring environment. Dr. Humans notes that bullying is not illegal in most states in the United States.

Characteristics of the bully

Bullies typically want control over the targeted individual. They will use different methods to achieve the desired control. One manner of bullying is direct, overt, and in-your-face, while another type of bully will use a manipulative, passive-aggressive manner. The direct bullies demand others to comply to meet their needs. They use direct words and tone of voice to push the target into decisions and outcomes they want.

The manipulative bully is much more persuasive in the approach to get the targeted individual to comply. This bully's manner is less confrontational but still creates pressure and stress to comply. He or she will seduce or charm the targets and convince them by using guilt, manipulation, and force.

Bullying does not only occur face-to-face but can also take the form of cyberbullying4 through electronic emails, Facebook, text-messaging, blogging, and Twitter accounts. Cyberbullying can be considered a passive form of bullying done by one or more individuals; cybermobbing occurs when others join in on the bullying of the targeted individual. The social media to which so many of us belong can be a very mean and hurtful place. This is evident in our schools with the recent horrific advent of suicides of young targeted victims.

Results of being bullied

The end result of all types of bullying — either by coworkers or by a supervisor — is that targeted individuals feel they are not being heard or respected. (Figs. 1 and 2) Team spirit within the workplace is diminished. Collegiality, professionalism, and comradeship are lowered or may even become nonexistent. The employee will give in, withdraw, and may try to ignore the situation, usually unsuccessfully. Work productivity decreases and stress levels are elevated.

The emotional stress-related outcomes for the bullied individual are multilayered. Three-quarters of those who are bullied exhibit irritability, loss of sleep, and fearfulness. (Fig. 3) Sixty percent of those claim loss of self-confidence, and 57% have stress-related headaches. Approximately 40% said they have memory loss, anger issues, family life disruption, and withdrawal at work. At least one-third of the targets reported eventually having severe anxiety attacks. Eighteen percent were diagnosed with depression, while 9% said they had an increase in substance abuse.5

What to do

What can you and Mary do to deal with Janet and other coworkers who side with her or are too afraid to go against her? What if you are the victim?

  • Keep a journal of the bullying instances in which dates and times are included.
  • Speak with other coworkers to find out if they are experiencing similar behavior.
  • Write a memo if you feel you cannot confront the bully. Keep copies of anything said or written referring to your inability to do your job.
  • Try to avoid being alone with the bully and try to get witnesses to incidents.
  • Check any new responsibilities you are given with a copy of your job description.
  • Consider speaking to your employer about the bullying and its effect on your ability to do your job.
  • Do not retaliate because it may look as if you are the aggressor.6
  • Consider leaving the place of employment where the bullying occurs. Look at this decision as a positive move in your career.

When the bully is a supervisor, ask for a meeting to talk about your job performance. Discuss how you can improve your job productivity. Dr. Humans suggests making a follow-up appointment with the supervisor-bully for a week or a month later to evaluate outcomes and assess job improvement. She feels that bullies, either coworkers or supervisors, will not stop voluntarily.

There is legal recourse for the bullied individual. This is supported by legal requirements in harassment and discrimination guidelines that protect the public in health and workplace safety. Discrimination and harassment laws enable employees to sue for creating a "hostile work environment," which now includes bullying. This is all tied into discrimination and harassment laws, such as race, religion, sex, age, disabilities, and sexual orientation.

Lastly, very few states have actual bullying laws in effect, but the laws are changing. Workplace bullying bills in some states typically permit employees to sue their employers for creating an "abusive work environment." As mentioned in most other states, the act of bullying is tied to discrimination and harassment. However, with the recent events of suicides from bullying within school systems, this unkind, devious act is gaining prominence in the legal arena. More states are now starting to enact laws that specifically define and address bullying.

If you feel you are a victim of workplace bullying, seek counsel from a lawyer who specializes in discrimination and harassment law. Mary and all of us have the right to be able to work in a safe and civil workplace environment. RDH

Consider reading:Workplace bullying
Consider reading:Staff Rx: Workplace bullying
Consider reading:Stop the madness


1. Quine L. Workplace bullying in nurses. J of Health Psychology. January 2001; 6(1):73-84.
2. http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/2010-wbi-national-survey/Accessed 11/5/2012.
3. Web interview of Dr. Jackie Humans, RN, with Editor Mark Hartley. Bullying in the workplace. RDH magazine on June 9, 2011, at 3:26pm.
4. http://kidshealth.org/PageManager.jsp?dn=KidsHealth%lic=1&ps=207&cat_id=20181&art. Accessed 9/20/2012
5. Matsui J. Report on Bullying in the Workplace. Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), July 2005, Toronto, Ontario.
6. http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/pychosocial/bullying.html Accessed 7/10/2012.

Claudine Paula Drew, RDH, MS, EDD, is the chairman of the dental hygiene department at Eastern International College in Jersey City, N.J. Claudine has worked in many different career paths within Dental Hygiene. Her favorite venue is international employment. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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