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Bullies as Peers

This week, the London High Court ordered Deutsche Bank to pay a former secretary more than 800,000 pounds ($1.5 million) in damages after ruling that she was the victim of a "deliberate and concerted campaign of bullying." Although you might assume that Helen Green's is the latest in an all-too-common story of employees bullied by a boss, her case is different. It was her coworkers that bullied her.

"Bullying managers grab the headlines, but it also occurs between people on the same grade," says occupational psychologist Noreen Tehrani. Indeed. Green testified that four female colleagues stole her mail, made crude and lewd comments to her, blew raspberries, and told her she smelled badly. The Justice presiding over the case called it a "relentless campaign of mean and spiteful behavior designed to cause her distress."

So what did Deutsche Bank do when Green reported the harassment to her supervisors? They sent HER to stress counseling. When the bullying continued, they sent HER to assertiveness training. And after she suffered multiple nervous breakdowns, they let HER go. Not surprising then was Deutsche Bank's defense strategy: rather than admitting in court that bullying took place, they portrayed Green as predisposed to mental illness.

The bank's response to Green's initial reports of bullying--sending her to counseling and assertiveness training--was akin to tolerating her colleagues' abusive behavior. And that reaction is becoming common in the workplace, especially as companies struggle to find and keep qualified workers. As one leader of an organization with high turnover recently described a long-time employee, "We know she's bringing down her coworkers with her gruff personality and negative attitude, but she's such a great nurse." Is she really?

Consider the effects of bullying on employees: Dr. Tehrani has compared stress symptoms among Northern Ireland soldiers returning from combat and victims of workplace bullying. "The symptoms displayed by people who have been in conflict situations and workplaces where bullying happens are strikingly similar," she said. "Both groups suffer nightmares, are jumpy, and seem fuelled by too much adrenaline. In addition, they show greater susceptibility to illnesses, heart disease, and alcoholism." No wonder bullied workers miss seven more days of work to illness each year than other employees do.

You cannot tolerate bullies in your organization. As if bullying from coworkers does not cause their victims enough harm, the lack of protection from the organization's leaders will be the fatal blow. So if high employee absenteeism and turnover as the result of bullying is not enough incentive to get you to act, hopefully news stories of multimillion dollar settlements will get your attention.
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