Workplace bullying

April 1, 2011
I graduated from hygiene school two years ago and accepted a position in a local dental practice. I really love dental hygiene, but ...

by Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA
[email protected]

Dear Dianne,

I graduated from hygiene school two years ago and accepted a position in a local dental practice. I really love dental hygiene, but my work is becoming increasingly difficult because of bullying from a coworker. She is a dental assistant who has worked in the practice for about 10 years. For some reason her bullying has increased lately, and I've left the office in tears on several occasions. I try to avoid her, but in our small office that's impossible.

The first time it happened, I was speechless. She approached me in the staff lounge at lunch and made a cutting remark about my hair. Looking back, I should have insulted her right back, but I was so shocked I didn't know what to say. Now she says things like, "You really think you're something, don't you? I think you're a piece of @#$%!" When I asked what I had done to make her feel that way, she said she had a right to feel any way she wishes. She makes no bones about the fact that she does not like me. She's about twice my size, and I'm actually afraid of her.

I have not gone to the doctor about the problem because he's under a great deal of stress right now with his critically ill wife. I don't want to give him one more thing to worry about. But my problem is affecting my health. Sometimes my hands tremble, and I get terrible stomach aches just thinking about going to work. I really need to work, and jobs are very hard to find in our rural area. I've even thought about talking to an attorney, but I really don't have the money. Can you help me figure out what to do?

Desperate RDH

Dear Desperate,

What a sad situation! I'm so sorry you have to deal with such an unpleasant and unfortunate workplace issue.

Your inquiry prompted me to do some research on workplace bullying. Evidently, there is quite a bit of workplace bullying in our society today. In fact, there is an organization called the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) that has a wealth of information.

The WBI commissioned Zogby International to conduct a survey and collect data on adult Americans relating to workplace bullying. Their research was published in 2010. Some key points:

  1. 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand
  2. 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women
  3. Women bullies target women in 80% of cases
  4. Bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment
  5. The majority (68%) of bullying is same-gender harassment

I find it interesting that women typically target other women. So much for the "YaYa Sisterhood," huh? This statistic seems antithetical to the belief that women are nurturers and supporters. According to Gary Namie, PhD, research director with the WBI, the high incidence of women bullying women, "is probably some idea that they can find a less confrontative person or someone less likely to respond to aggression with aggression" in another woman.

The WBI defines bullying as the deliberate, repeated, harmful targeting of another person with disrespectful, insulting, and/or threatening behavior that is intended to be hurtful. This abuse causes the recipient to feel vulnerable, threatened, frightened, and/or humiliated. Bullies may feel jealousy and possess a need to control people. Bullies are not interested in the recipient's feelings and often resort to distortion of the truth. Bullies can use passive-aggressive behaviors to inflict emotional distress on the target by intentionally withholding information or deliberately misinterpreting something the target said to make him/her look bad. Bullying in the workplace is very similar to spousal abuse in the home.

Some of the signs of being the object of bullying in the workplace include trying to avoid the bullying people, feeling intimidated, a lack of communication, muscular tension, and physical illness. You are already experiencing these signs.

I once consulted in an office that had a bullying staff member. Two different staff members told me how difficult it was to work with this woman and that many other staff members had left because of her bullying. Although she was good at her job, her presence made the other staff members feel like they were walking on eggshells. The bully was very two-faced, pretending to be congenial to her coworkers in the doctor's presence. Although the doctor had received some complaints about the bully, he was not aware of the seriousness of the problem. The bully was eventually fired, but not before she had caused tremendous damage to the practice.

I believe one of the reasons that bullying has become such a problem in the workplace today is that it is not illegal. There are no laws that prevent bullying. According to the WBI Web site:

"Bullying certainly looks and feels like harassment. It is harassing, as commonly understood (defined as systematic, annoying, and continued actions which include threats and demands, and creating a hostile situation by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct). But at work, harassment is a special term. Often, workplace harassment connotes sexual misconduct and a hostile work environment. State and federal civil rights laws are designed to protect workers from discriminatory, disparate mistreatment. If, and ONLY if, you are a member of a protected status (grounds) group – there are seven in the U.S. and 11 in Canada – (e.g., gender, race, religion, ethnicity, etc.), and you have been mistreated by a person who is NOT a member of a protected group, you might be able to claim that you were harassed. (Only a legal professional can advise you on this.) HR must respond to your complaint and the entire antidiscrimination procedure begins. Illegal discriminatory harassment occurs in only 20% of bullying cases. That means that 80% of bullying is legal! Bullying is four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job."

There are some efforts afoot to curb workplace bullying by passing appropriate legislation intended to define the problem and designate remedies for infractions. However, such legislation is still forthcoming.

What should you do? First, you must not delay any longer in informing the doctor of the situation. Do not mince words! You must tell him everything in a very straightforward way. Employers must take seriously their role in providing a safe and nonthreatening work environment. Second, start keeping a journal of bullying incidents. Third, if the doctor does not take immediate action, I recommend you request a meeting with the bully in the doctor's presence. Let the doctor and the bullying coworker know that you intend to take further action if the bullying does not end immediately.

Best wishes,

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. She is CEO of Professional Dental Management, based in Frederick, Md. To contact Glasscoe Watterson for speaking or consulting, call (301) 874-5240 or e-mail [email protected]. Visit her Web site at

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