Bullying in the Workplace

Most people think of bullying as a problem of the schoolyard. But increasingly that term is being used to describe aggression in all kinds of settings in which power imbalances are common and in which aggression is problematic. Bullying in the workplace, for example, is far from new, but it has been in the spotlight in recent years.

See, for example, this editorial by Theresa Brown, for the NY Times, on bullying in healthcare workplaces: Physician, Heel Thyself

…while most doctors clearly respect their colleagues on the nursing staff, every nurse knows at least one, if not many, who don’t.

Indeed, every nurse has a story like mine, and most of us have several. A nurse I know, attempting to clarify an order, was told, “When you have ‘M.D.’ after your name, then you can talk to me.” A doctor dismissed another’s complaint by simply saying, “I’m important.”

While bullying may be a particularly dangerous in healthcare, where patients’ lives can easily depend on just how well a team of heal professionals functions, bullying, or even subtler forms of interpersonal conflict, can be common in any kind of workplace. And indeed, while the risks of poor team performance in healthcare are especially vivid, it has the potential to have serious negative effects — effects far beyond the people directly involved — in all kinds of businesses that themselves have significant impact on people’s lives or the natural environment. It isn’t difficult to imagine, for example, bullying being part of the root cause of the kind of poor teamwork that might result in an environmental catastrophe like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill.

Brown’s article rightly points to the significance of ‘tone at the top.’ Basically, if the boss is a bully, such behaviour is liable to trickle down the chain of command. So leaders have a strong obligation neither to engage in, nor to tolerate, bullying. But people much farther down the chain of command also face ethical questions with regard to bullying — including especially how to respond to it and deal with it. Those with the least power within an organization are likely going to be the most vulnerable to bullying. Some of the toughest ethical challenges faced by junior people in an organization may have to do with responding to pressure from above, and with the difficulties inherent in being at the bottom of their organizational hierarchies. Younger employees, or ones simply new to that particular workplace, understandably find it difficult — and a source of moral distress — not just to survive bullying, but sometimes to be involved in courses of action that they see as unethical and yet that they are powerless to do anything about. It’s hard to know what advice to give to people in such situations, because sometimes there really is very little they can do. But one thing they can do is to consider, starting right now, how they should treat those beneath them in the hierarchy, if and when they themselves move up it, and how they are going to make sure not to fall into those same, all-too-common, toxic behaviours.

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