In my ongoing research, I recently found an article from the Workplace Bullying Institute about self-defeating stigmas held by adults bullied in the workplace. While reading the article, I began to think about my own experiences with workplace bullying and recognized some of my own shame about it.
Then, I thought about autistic adults and workplace bullying as a whole. According to a 2010 survey by the WBI, 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand. With estimates of autistic children being bullied as high as 90%, it’s not hard to imagine that many autistic adults have been bullied as both children and adults. And if what the WBI call a “silent epidemic” is distressing to neurotypical employees, you can imagine what kind of pain and distress it might cause for an autistic employee.
For the purposes of this series, I will also cover workplace gossiping, and how it affects the autistic employee. While it is not out-and-out bullying, sometimes gossip and bullying can occur together – or even separately. But in any case, both phenomena can have detrimental effects on an autistic employee.
What Is Bullying?
First, we need to define bullying itself. The revised edition of The Bully at Work by Gary and Ruth Namie defines workplace bullying as “repeated, malicious health-endangering mistreatment of one employee by one or more employees”. Rudy Simone, author of Asperger’s on the Job (2010), cites this definition in her discussion of workplace bullying in the book. Additionally, the WBI describes it in their FAQ as follows:
“It is mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker’s health, jeopardize her or his job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family. It is a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It has nothing to do with work itself. It is driven by the bully’s personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done. It begins with one person singling out the target. Before long, the bully easily and swiftly recruits others to gang up on the target, which increases the sense of isolation.”
The WBI further says that bullying can take the following forms:
- Verbal abuse
- Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
- Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done
In a sense, workplace bullying is not much different from the kind of bullying we might have encountered in school. It may be more subtle in some cases (like gossip about a target, or veiled threats), but the basic tactics remain the same. Consider the following definition, courtesy of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program:
“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”
And consider the following types of bullying, also courtesy of Olweus:
- Verbal bullying including derogatory comments and bad names
- Bullying through social exclusion or isolation
- Physical bullying such as hitting, kicking, shoving, and spitting
- Bullying through lies and false rumors
- Having money or other things taken or damaged by students who bully
- Being threatened or being forced to do things by students who bully
- Racial bullying
- Sexual bullying
- Cyber bullying (via cell phone or Internet)
If you look at both the above list and the list from the WBI I cited earlier, you’ll notice that though Olweus’ list is more explicit and applies specifically to the primary and secondary school environments (although sometimes this kinds of bullying sadly happens in higher education institutions, as we have seen from recent news), the aims, objectives, and malicious intent are the same.
Why Do Bullies Bully?
When you’re on the receiving end, it can be hard to comprehend why someone might choose to mistreat you. I know I often walked away from encounters wondering why it was happening, and what I could have done to cause the person in question to treat me that way. But believe it or not, there are clear-cut (if perhaps cruel and illogical reasons) why bullies mistreat others in the workplace.
There are personal reasons, and there are institutional reasons for why bullying occurs. First I will discuss the personal reasons why bullies bully. You will notice that while each of these reasons is distinct in and of itself, they are all somewhat related.
- To hide their own inadequacies. The UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line says that people bully in the workplace to “avoid facing up to their inadequacy and doing something about it; to avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour and the effect it has on others; to reduce their fear of being seen for what they are, namely a weak, inadequate and often incompetent individuals; and, to divert attention away from their inadequacy”. In other words, they are trying to cover up their own perceived shortcomings and putting others down to make themselves feel better, superior, and more capable for the job.
- Maladaptive coping mechanism. Stephanie Allen Crist in her article on workplace bullying and autism on Shift Journal says that bullying is a coping mechanism – whether the bully is actually the target of bullying from others (which can happen in many workplaces) or he/she is attempting to cope with prejudice, fear, or misunderstanding. In many cases, the bully may have been or may be the target of bullying by others in the workplace, or they may fear being targeted – so they bully others to deflect any possibility of being bullied.
- Personal bitterness, anger, and resentment. The UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line continues by saying that “bullies are seething with resentment, bitterness, hatred and anger, and often have wide-ranging prejudices as a vehicle for dumping their anger onto others.” In essence, they have not learned to deal with their negative feelings – and instead of using positive coping mechanisms for those negative feelings, they choose to take them out on others – namely other people who they may view as acceptable targets due to perceived weakness, differences, or because they think that certain qualities about that person will allow them to “get away with it”. More on this later.
- Sadism. In other words, the person enjoys inflicting pain and distress on others. Yes, there are some people out there like this – some of them may qualify for a sadistic personality disorder diagnosis. According to forensic psychologist Stephen J. Hucker, this personality disorder is a “pervasive pattern of behavior which characterized by cruel, manipulative, demeaning and possibly aggressive behavior towards others”. Sounds a little like bullying, doesn’t it? It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to suppose that some of these types are behind a lot of the workplace – and school – bullying that happens.
Now, I’ll move on to the institutional causes of workplace bullying. Probably the best source on this is the WBI, which mentions the following three workplace factors that contribute to bullying:
- Factor 1: Work Culture Provides Cutthroat Competition Opportunities. This is what Simone in Asperger’s on the Job refers to as a “survival of the fittest” mentality: people are pitted against each other at work, and attacking others to make oneself look better – or to drive them out of the workplace entirely – becomes the mode of survival. And often, it is the best and the brightest who are targeted by bullies. But again, more on that later.
- Factor 2: The Workforce Mix. The WBI refers to “Machiavellian” types of individuals: in their case, what can look like ambition on a job resume may disguise a willingness to harm others to get ahead. In my mind, this is related to the personal causes of bullying: you could have either someone covering up their inadequacies or a real sadist/sociopath who does not care about hurting others to reach the top. And the problem is, these types of people might find their behavior encouraged or rewarded in the workplace. Which leads me to…
- Factor 3: The Employer’s Response to Bullying. In many cases, management either falls to respond to bullying entirely, makes excuses for the bullies and does not subject them to punishment, or out-and-out rewards the bullies with raises, promotions, and the like. These responses from the employer will certainly not deter him or her from ceasing. On the contrary, as the WBI puts it, it actually emboldens that individual and gives them incentive to continue the harassment. As a result, it creates a toxic environment for the target employee and again, as I mentioned earlier, the best and brightest are subjected to mental, physical, and emotional consequences if they stay – or if they leave, this results in something called “constructive discharge” (which I will cover in a later segment in this series).
The Effects of Workplace Bullying on Targets
The effects of bullying in the workplace are not that much different from bullying in school. According to Simone, those effects are “fear, isolation, mistrust of others, embarrassment, resentment, humiliation, and hostility”. Going back to school for just a moment, this can appear in school-age children as depression, severe anxiety, or PTSD manifesting itself as self-isolation, health problems, nightmares, poor grades, and suicidal thoughts (according to both Olweus).
For adults experiencing workplace bullying, its effects are not that much different than that of school bullying. Simone mentions that targets often adopt coping strategies such as hiding mistakes and not drawing attention to themselves. A former star performer – again, one of the best and brightest that I keep referring to – might end up with symptoms that Simone cites such as: a poorer work ethic, decreased enthusiasm for the job, depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, an impaired immune system, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Doesn’t this sound similar to the list of effects in the last paragraph…grades dropping, PTSD, self-isolation, health problems, and the like?
And consider what these kinds of effects might look like on an autistic individual. As I mentioned in my first post on stress, anxiety, and Asperger’s, autistics have a rougher time dealing with stress and anxiety. What is stressful to a neurotypical is blown up into mega-stressful for us due to our more sensitive nervous systems: factors such as low frustration tolerance and a lower tolerance for unpredictability can send our nerves into overdrive. Add other factors such as verbal communication difficulties typical among our population and possible post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood bullying and you have a very overwhelmed, frightened, stressed out person.
Thank you again for joining me on yet another blogging journey. Stay tuned for the next post in the series, which will include discussions of how bullies select their targets, what autistic tendencies tend to make us more prone to bullying, and a few words about autistic employees and gossip. In the meantime, please talk back to me. What have been your experiences with bullying? How did workplace bullying affect you, your productivity, your health, and your enthusiasm for the job? Have you left a job because of bullying? What would you tell other autistics in your situation?
Until next time,