Can Boomers Stop the Bullying at Work?
Six actions to take if you see it happening at your employer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a career coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. Her website is MyLifestyleCareer.com; on Twitter she is @NancyCollamer.
While this may sound like a hypothetical question, it’s anything but. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 27 percent of Americans have been bullied at work, 21 percent have witnessed it and 72 percent of us are aware that workplace bullying happens.
Real bullying involves more than just bad management and obnoxious behavior.
How Bullying Can Harm A Victim’s Health
It also means health-harming behaviors that can include verbal abuse, offensive conduct and intentional sabotage. And workplace bullying doesn’t just harm the victim. It leads to poor morale, high turnover and low productivity, which impact the entire organization.
(MORE: What to Do When You Work for a Bully)
The problem is now so widespread that lawmakers in 15 states have introduced legislation aimed at prodding employers to take the matter seriously or face consequences. (Tennessee already has workplace bullying laws on the books, but they only apply to public sector employees.)
Why Boomers Can Be Effective
So what are you willing to do about it? I ask because many boomers are in management and as a result, some are in a good position to take action. Even if you’re not among your employer's leadership team, you still might be able to make a difference.
If you’re well respected by colleagues, have good relations with key influencers at your employer or have strong job security, it’s likely easier for you to speak up and get management to take bullying seriously than it is for your younger co-workers.
(MORE: Tips for Women Who Work With ‘Mean Girls’)
That is an important advantage. Just like on the playground where bigger kids target weaker ones, the majority of workplace bullying is inflicted from the top down. According to the WBI survey, 56 percent of it is attributed to bosses, compared to 33 percent that’s blamed on peers. Given this inherent power imbalance, it’s no surprise that few victims stand up to their abusers.
I want to emphasize that not every boomer is in a position to stand up to workplace bullies.
Many older workers are in precarious job situations and know that if they speak up, they could be fired. That’s especially true in environments where bully behavior is a celebrated part of the workplace culture. (Wolves of Wall Street anyone?)
Are Boomers the Guilty Party?
And let’s be honest. There are all too many boomers who are bullies themselves.
(MORE: How to Survive a Young, Abusive Boss)
“Boomers are among the guiltiest of the bullies," says Gary Namie, director of the WBI. “It is our generation that revered command-and-control management style.”
In fact, Namie argues that younger generations (including the boomer’s kids who were groomed on the intolerance of bullying throughout their school years) will be the ones who make bullying unacceptable sometime in the future.
That may well come to pass. But it doesn’t mean that employees in their 50s and 60s don’t have a responsibility to stand up for what is right when they can. In fact, given the role boomers have played in fostering this problem, quite the opposite.
The next time you witness bullying, consider taking the following steps to set things straight. I’ve broken them out for people in upper management and those who aren’t.
If You Are In Upper Management
Monitor peer managers for bullying acts Then, if you see any, quietly but firmly stop the abusive conduct.
Namie advises that you have a private conversation with your colleague about the destructive effect the conduct has on subordinates, coworkers and the entire organization. The message coming from a peer or a higher manager is much more effective than any dialogue the bullied target might want to initiate.
Implement a workplace bullying policy It should spell out the ramifications of workplace bullying and the impact of violations, as well as an easily-understood reporting procedure.
To be most effective, managers should get training on how to respond to reports of bullying, plus how to enforce policies and procedures. WBI offers online and in-person training options for employers interested in implementing policies.
Stick to your guns Even the best anti-bullying policy will be a mockery if there is no follow through. When bullying occurs, you must be willing to follow the designated procedures, even if that means standing up to a valued colleague.
If You’re Not in a Leadership Position
Enlist support from upper management Namie recommends securing assistance from a manager who is senior to the bully by at least two levels — not the bully’s immediate boss.
Get coworkers to join with you Donna Ballman, a labor attorney and author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired, says: “You should discuss with coworkers that you are going to complain, maybe get at least one other to come with you if you can, or even put together a complaint signed by other non-supervisory coworkers.”
Help the victim find another job Sometimes the best — and only — way to assist a bullying target is to help the person find another position, either by transferring within the company or by going elsewhere. According to the WBI, in 61 percent of cases, bullying stops only when the target loses her or his job.
Case in point: I recently heard from a 25 year-old who was forced out of her first job by a female bully boss. She explained her situation this way: “The incompetent HR manager, who was willfully blind to the problem, allowed the bully free rein. No matter how many people complained to him, no matter how clear it was that she was a toxic presence in the office, the HR manager always claimed to need ‘just one more person’ to come forward before he could do anything. When those are the office dynamics, the only thing you can do is what my immediate boss did for me, which is help the junior worker leave the situation.”
If an internal transfer is possible and desirable, offer to make a personal introduction or recommendation to the hiring manager in another department. If a transfer isn’t feasible, make job introductions to key people in your network elsewhere; pass on information about promising leads; offer yourself as a strong reference and serve as a strategic sounding board during the search process.
Help the bullying victim keep perspective while navigating this difficult situation. It’s worth you mentioning that as stressful as a job change may be, it is almost always better than continuing to toil under a bully boss.