"The playground bully has grown up and
gotten a job." That's how the New York Times health blog started a brief entry
on 11 March that generated a
heavy response (nearly 400 comments), and resulted in follow-up posts on 24 March and 25 March. As Science Careers
columnist Irene Levine also noted in a 2006 article on this topic, bullies are causing
problems in a lot of workplaces, including academia. Like the response to the
Times blog posts, Levine's article continues to be among our most read
One of the difficulties in identifying bullying behavior is its insidious nature. Unlike the playground bully, the workplace bully uses psychological rather than physical punishment. What may at first seem like insensitivity or bad manners can in fact be a way of intimidating coworkers. Public put-downs, glaring, interrupting when speaking, taking credit for others' contributions, and spreading gossip or rumors are examples of the nasty tricks bullies use to belittle and embarrass colleagues. The New York Times and Levine's article have more examples.
Levine's article for Science Careers focuses on bullies in supervisory positions, who use their positions of authority to intimidate staff and students in their labs or classes. But as the Times notes, bullies can appear in the next cublicle (or lab bench) as well as the corner office. Wherever they occur, bullies take a toll on individuals' self-esteem and mental health. It costs organizations as well, with more turnover, higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and the threat of legal action.
Apparently, workplace bullying is common. According to a Zogby International survey released last Fall and cited by the Times, some 37% of American workers say they have experienced bullying on the job. Many victims of bullying are tempted to just swallow the insults, but as both Levine and the Times pieces suggest, you don't have to suffer in silence. Levine suggests finding the courage to confront the bully in a professional manner. If that doesn't work, take it up the chain of command.
Levine also suggests that you find confidants inside the office, or among friends or family, to provide advice and support. Also, don't forget the Science Careers Forum, where other participants and forum advisers can offer advice. If all else fails, make plans to change jobs.