Bullies contaminate the workplace. Bullying comes in a variety of behaviors, which may be one reason many employers and worker don’t recognize it, or don’t know how to handle it when they do. An estimated 37 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 54 million Americans, report being bullied at work, and an additional 12 percent witness it. Workplace bullying is a “silent epidemic,” as 40 percent never report it.

Despite its pervasiveness, workplace bullying is a subject enterprise security professionals rarely explore. Given the magnitude of the problem, this will presumably change in the coming years.

Bullying Behavior

Bullying behavior is repeated mistreatment of one or more persons (targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, isolating, humiliating or intimidating; it can be physical or verbal and it interferes with or sabotages work.

Sexual harassment, as well as racial, gender, disability, and age discrimination are also forms of workplace bullying. The bully can be an employer, peer, subordinate or even client or a supplier. The employer pays for this in lost efficiency, absenteeism, high staff turnover, severance packages, and lawsuits.

Bullies are driven by a need to control the targeted individual(s). They target their victims and calculate the timing, location, and methods of abuse. It can include acts of commission (doing things to others) or omission (withholding resources or information from others). Workplace bullying can intensify, and involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion.

Bullying undermines business interests when the abuser ’s personal agenda takes precedence over his or her work (and the work of their victim).

Bullying behavior is rooted in feelings of inadequacy. Some suffer from mental health disorders. Whatever the cause, their outlet for coping is aggression and violence. Workers and employers lack education on how to recognize abuse, curb it and effectively cope with its aftermath.

Security’s responsibilities

Security officers need to learn the many forms workplace bullying takes. This includes: verbal abuse or swearing; staff being singled out or excluded; actions are taken that humiliate staff members; or “practical jokes” being repeated time and again. In many cases, security staff may be the company’s best bet to address “mobbing” and sanctioned group bullying.

The impact to victims of bullying is severe. It affects their physical and mental health; fatigue, low functioning, and suicide are common. Victims lose their ability to be productive at work and may be fired, even as the bully is rewarded and promoted.

The high cost of workplace bullying to employers

Surveys in the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and the U.S. indicate that physical violence in the workplace is rare, but one in five workers is exposed to verbal and emotional abuse. For employers, that translates to direct and indirect costs – in healthcare, increased workloads, stunted creativity, staff turnover, reduced productivity, absenteeism, and corporate dysfunction, adding up to $40 billion in the UK and $200 billion in the United States annually.

Employers and security teams should learn to identify and intervene when bullying occurs. Organizations like American Psychological Association and The Society for Human Resource Management can provide information about workplace violence, and guidance for establishing a workplace bullying policy.