Mean Girls

Thanks to awareness-raising documentaries and heartbreaking media coverage of teens pushed over the edge by cyber-taunting, there’s a new sensitivity to the damage harassment inflicts on children and young adults. But some people never outgrow the impulse to torment or humiliate others and not only does adult bullying tend to fly under the radar, it may even be on the upswing because of the rough economy says Gary Namie, Ph.D., cofounder of the VBI and coauthor of The Bully-Free Workplace. He points out that more than a quarter of WBI survey respondents said their offices had gotten more hostile as the country slipped into a recession. “Stress brings out the worst in everyone,” explains Namie.

Still, experts are divided as to why some bosses resort to tyrannical tactics. Some research, such as a 2009 Psychological Science study, suggests that insecurity drives certain supervisors to turn on their subordinates. But other findings indicate the opposite: that an overinflated sense of self-worth is to blame.

Description:  “While males tend to be equal opportunists, women pick on other women 80 percent of the time,” says Loraleigh Keashly

“While males tend to be equal opportunists, women pick on other women 80 percent of the time,” says Loraleigh Keashly

Like the Queen Bees of high school who mock another girl’s clothes or snub her in the lunchroom, grown up females typically go after one of their own. “While males tend to be equal opportunists, women pick on other women 80 percent of the time,” says Loraleigh Keashly, Ph.D.. director of the master’s in dispute resolution program at Wayne State University. Their victims are often 20 and 30 sornethings who are still fresh in their careers.

In that respect, workplace bullies have a lot in common with abusive spouses, seek out people who appear vulnerable and try to control and dominate them,” says Namie, Another similarity: Both types of perpetrators can harm your health and be difficult to escape.

Collateral Damage

Anyone spending a significant amount of time in a hostile environment is going to feel somewhat stressed out. But nearly half of bullied workers go on to develop serious anxiety and depression; 20 to 30 percent end up with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. As is the case with teen bullying, some even commit suicide.

Emotional angst, in turn, affects physical health. When you’re continually under the gun, your lxxiv pumps out fight or flight hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, causing blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar to skyrocket. That ups your risk of heart problems and diabetes. “Adults who are harassed at work arc also more prone to migraines, stomach upset, and body aches,” says Kathleen Rospenda, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

April, 45, found herself sleepless and depressed two years ago after a new CEO was hired at the Philadelphia hank where she worked. Ile chipped away at her self-confidence by undermining her and taking great pleasure in tearing apart her ideas in front of others. Once he even announced that a child could do her job better than she could. “I ate constantly to dull the pain and anxiety and gained 30 pounds.” says April. “It was one of the lowest periods of my life.”

Fighting Back

April quit her job after six months of this torture, but many employees end up staving for months or years in an abusive situation because of a shaky job market. Even if you want to salvage your position, it can be difficult to get help.

Filing a complaint with human resources may seem like a logical first step, but it often backfires, says David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. “HR is loyal to top management,” he says. “They don’t get involved unless there’s a clear legal reason to do so.” And as long as your boss isn’t sexually harassing or mistreating you because of your age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability; she’s generally within her legal rights to make snide comments, needlessly make you redo projects, and crush your self-esteem.

Talking to your boss’ boss may not get you too far either. Employers who are made aware of such situations often ignore the complaint, according to the WBI. When they do intervene, the situation may worsen for example, the bully could become punitive when con fronted.

Description: Talking to your boss’ boss may not get you too far either.

Talking to your boss’ boss may not get you too far either.

Stacie discovered this when she finally appealed to her company’s owner after more than a year of relentless torment only to find out that he was very aware of the problem. “Apparently people have been quitting for years because of this woman’s antics,” says Stacie. But because she generates revenue, she is allowed to keep her job.

And don’t plan on your colleagues stepping up: A 2008 WBI survey found that almost half of coworkers who witness inappropriate ac distance themselves from targets. “Bystanders often don’t know what to do,” says Keashly. Having your back, they worry; will put them next in line for trouble.

If you do want to take our case a step further and try a legal maneuver, usually the only hope for recourse is proving that discrimination (say, based on race or gender) played a role in your mistreatment as it does in almost a quarter of bullying cases, says Yamada. He suggests saving incriminating emails, keeping detailed notes about transgressions, and talking to an employment lawyer.

Those strategies paid off for Lee Love. She was in her 20s and working for a telecom company in Fort Wirth, TX, when her boss started constantly badgering her. “I’m from Jamaica, and he’d refer to me as ‘Ms. Foreigner,” says Lee, who has self-published a novel, Twitch Twitch, based on her experience. “Often when I’d walk by him, he’d say ‘beep beep’ like a bus was hacking up, and slap me on the behind,” The final straw was when he insisted that Lee and another black employee take a lie detector test after some money went missing. Lee sued for discrimination, her supervisor got fired, and the company paid her to settle the case.

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