The Bully Wears Prada

Last Updated Mar 23, 2010 3:44 PM EDT

Two years ago BNET ran several blog posts on the return of bullying to the workplace. The theory was that as the recession ground on, pressures to produce would increase, office tensions would rise and some employees would resort to over-the-line intimidation to get work done.

Hoping to see if this theory actually came to pass, I visited what many consider an authoritative organization on the subject, the Workplace Bullying Institute. Unfortunately, I didn't see any numbers since 2007, when a survey sponsored by that organization found about 37 percent of workers polled felt they had been victimized in this way.

But I did find an intriguing post titled The Bully Wears Heels. The upshot: most victims of bullying at work are women, and there is a pretty good possibility that other women are doing the damage.

Author Karan Smith cites a report finding that 40 percent of workplace bullies in the U.S. are women, and their victims are usually other women. Men most often pick on women as well.

Here are some interesting observations in the piece:

  • Bullying takes many forms. "Tactics range from the loud -- yelling, door slamming and ranting -- to the subtle: A bullied employee might find herself excluded from important meetings or assigned tasks without adequate resources to complete them. Her co-workers could be recruited in a campaign to isolate her. And behind her back, the bully may trash her to higher-ups, although bosses themselves are often the culprits."
  • Bullies pick on good employees. "The employee under attack is often a competent, committed one, singled out for her strengths, not her weaknesses."
  • Fish rots from the head. "Bullying typically occurs in an organization with poor leadership."
  • Bullying creates sickness. The article says victims will often suffer high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, and even battle field issues such as post-traumatic-stress disorder.
The best way to prevent bullying, whether by men or women, is to consider the underlying social reasons why it occurs in the first place -- read Create a Bully-Free Workplace on HBR.org for worthwhile tips.

Have you experienced bullying at work. Have you bullied?

Related Reading:

Workplace Bullying: A Management Primer (BNET)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.