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Workplace Bullying: What Keeps Victims Silent

Workplace Bullying: What Keeps Victims Silent
Credit: Jirsak/Shutterstock

Just because none of your employees have complained to you about being bullied at work doesn't mean it's not happening.

Many victims of workplace bullying suffer silently out of fear of retribution and because it's often hard for them to fully explain what is happening and how it started, according to new research recently published in the Management Communication Quarterly.

As part of their study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with nearly 50 victims of workplace bullying. They discovered that many of the victims felt that no one would believe them, or they were afraid of being labeled as a crybaby or a whiner, so they didn't report the situation to a manager or someone else in the organization.

"When you experience serious trauma in the workplace, it’s difficult to explain to people what is happening to you," Stacy Tye-Williams, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of communication studies and English at Iowa State University, said in a statement.

Overall, 54 million workers, or 35 percent of U.S. employees, are targeted by a bully at some point in their careers, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Besides not wanting to become ostracized, bullying victims are also hesitant to tell their story because they have a tough time fully explaining how the bullying began and escalated. Tye-Williams said their stories don’t always have a distinct beginning, middle or end and that since bullying often starts with subtle behaviors that make it hard to identify initially, several months can go by before the victims realize there truly is a problem. [Workplace Bullying Often Goes Unpunished ]

How victims tell their stories makes all the difference in whether people believe what the targets are saying is true, according to Tye-Williams.

“When the story is all over the place and feels disjointed or disconnected, people don’t understand or they can’t make sense of what happened," she said. "Then what often happens is the victim is not taken seriously or not believed, which is really sad because these victims tend to be the ones suffering most."

The study's authors believe supportive co-workers can play a huge role in helping victims get up the nerve to report the situation to higher-ups. Victims who don’t have someone to talk to about their story have a hard time formulating a narrative, Tye-Williams said.

“Even if you’re not comfortable as a co-worker reporting the behavior, letting the victim tell you their story, go with you to have a drink and vent, or just feel believed can help," Tye-Williams said. "For a lot of victims, that process of being believed and having someone listen to their story is crucial in helping them better communicate about their experience."

When a victim does have the strength to report the situation, it's critical that managers reserve judgment, according to the study. Even when the story is hard to follow, managers need to listen and ask questions in order to better understand what is going on, Tye-Williams said.

Besides listening to the victims, businesses also need to take action when bullying reports are found to be true, Tye-Williams said.

"It’s also important that we learn how to treat each other better and reach out when people are being harmed," she said. "We can all make strides in that direction."

Kathleen Krone, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, co-authored the study.

Originally published on Business News Daily

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.