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Putting a Stop to “Mean Girls”: Bullying in the Workplace

If the national spotlight on bullying has taught us anything, it’s that bullies aren’t just ornery kids picking on helpless classmates in the schoolyard. Bullies have invaded social media, and they’re becoming more prevalent in the workplace.

Surveys by the Workplace Bullying Institute show that women are the targets of bullying nearly 58 percent of the time, and when they’re the ones bullying others, they target other women 80 percent of the time.
Though woman-to-woman workplace bullying is on the rise, we can help put a stop to it by understanding why women bully other women, recognizing this bad behavior, and knowing what to do if you or a colleague is being bullied.
Why Women Bully Other Women
Gary Namie, the research director for the WBI, suggests that women may target other women because they believe female co-workers will be less confrontational or less likely to respond to aggression with aggression, simply making them easier targets. Another theory is that women feel threatened by the competition of other women in the workplace; with too few leadership positions or opportunities for advancement, a woman might target her female co-workers in an attempt to keep them from swooping in on her territory.
Peggy Klaus, a leadership coach in Berkeley, Calif., theorizes that women are highly emotional by nature, which causes them to home in on behavioral nuances and hold grudges. Women who take things too personally when challenged or criticized are often prone to overreaction, which can lead to toxic behaviors that undermine or intimidate others.
Toxic Behaviors of Bullies
There are many tactics that bullies employ to undermine co-workers, both directly and indirectly, but here are a few common behaviors female bullies exhibit in the workplace:
  • Comparing: Making comparisons—whether they’re concerning appearance, lifestyle, or work performance—to insinuate a shortcoming is a common passive-aggressive tactic that female bullies are especially prone to use. This technique is very destructive. Cutting someone down can affect her self-worth, her effectiveness at work, and her overall health.
  • Gossiping: Gossiping not only spreads misconceptions and misinformation to others in the workplace, but it creates an environment of tension in which the target no longer feels safe. This behavior cripples all levels of collaboration, decreasing productivity for all involved.
  • Backstabbing: Whether it’s leaving a co-worker out of an important meeting or taking credit for someone else’s work, intentionally undermining a co-worker is a particularly harmful bullying tactic. These actions can not only seriously damage a co-worker’s reputation and opportunities for advancement, but they can also destroy trust and teamwork in the workplace.
How to Counteract Bullying in the Workplace
If you find yourself the victim of workplace bullying or know someone being bullied, there are a few actions you can take to try to resolve the issue:
  • Define what you want: Step back and evaluate the situation. Determine whether you love your job enough to try to fix the problem or if you’d be better off moving on.
  • Devise a plan of action: Speak to someone higher up, such as a manager or human resources director, to explain your experiences and concerns. Don’t place blame; just provide facts. Clearly communicate what you’d like to see changed, and set a timeline for action.
  • Epitomize the culture you crave: Be sure you aren’t unintentionally supporting hurtful behavior in the workplace. Don’t engage in gossip or crack jokes at a co-worker’s expense. Work on communication skills to help yourself and others overcome challenges in a healthy way.
  • Be supportive: Strive to create a supportive workplace environment for women. Rather than viewing other women as competitors to tear down, strive to encourage and help others whenever you can. 
As I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve noticed that the women who’ve risen to the top are the ones who are focused on what’s really important. They’ve developed communications skills to overcome challenges with grace and kindness, and this behavior has a trickle-down effect of creating a workplace that doesn’t condone bullying.
Who or what has been most helpful in enabling you or others overcome workplace bullying?
Published: June 11, 2014

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September Dohrmann

September Dohrmann is the COO of CEO Space International. Her role in the company encompasses rebranding, HR, office management, and finding external solutions for the company. CEO Space believes in cooperation among businesses; it seeks to build a community that encourages, educates, and fosters new relationships with like-minded people in a conference setting.

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