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Workplace bullying: A serious matter

  • Published
  • By Capt. Genieve David
  • Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
Imagine entering your workplace. The atmosphere is very somber and you have no idea why. Everyone is quiet, no one is talking and you think, what the heck is going on? As you get a little more settled into the workplace your co-worker leans over and very softly whispers in your ear, "Smith attempted suicide last night."

Immediately your heart drops to the pit of your stomach, you begin to water up, you feel this awful pain inside your throat that you can't rid because the thought of what Smith tried to do to himself is haunting you.

What led Smith to make this decision? Well, there were many contributing factors, but from the typical workplace observer, the contributing factor may have been work-related stress.

Smith's supervisor has been in her position for less than one year. Co-workers have witnessed first-hand her publicly demeaning her subordinates, yelling and cursing at them and relaying how worthless they are to the organization. Morale has floundered and self-esteem has dropped to an all-time low.

According to research from the University of Ottawa, this supervisor had all the key elements of a "bullying boss". She imposed unneeded emotional and professional stress on the member and she psychologically and publicly demeaned him. Members in her organization never reported her due to fear of reprisal.

For months co-workers allowed Smith's supervisor to continue on this destructive and counterproductive leadership path. No one reported her for fear of losing their jobs or receiving letters of reprimand for insubordination.

As background, Smith's youngest daughter was diagnosed with an illness. He is an Air Force veteran who recently served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and was possibly dealing with post traumatic stress and he is in his first government job. With all of these internal issues, his job-related stress and a boss who doesn't know how to treat people humanly in the workplace could have very well driven Smith to the edge.

Rod Krause, a 5th Bomb Wing Safety officer, believes bullying leadership is a serious issue. "That kind of treatment takes a toll on workers' physical and mental health. Bullying can leave victims battling severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder."

Smith may very well have thought his life would be easier no longer existing in a society that was so negative or unbearable.

According to the University of Cambridge, bullying behavior includes continual, undeserved criticism, belittling remarks, imposition of unreasonable deadlines, unreasonable demands for perfection, arbitrary and inconsistent demands, shouting, swearing and offensive language toward the member, constant interruptions in discussions, and the display of overbearing or intrusive behavior.

His peers feel guilty. If they had reported these uninhabitable and horrible work conditions earlier, would they be sitting at their desk right now feeling remorse wishing they had spoken up sooner?

There are many avenues to report these types of behavior. Ask for a climate assessment survey in your organization, seek help through your next level leadership, put in a complaint through the inspector general's office. Make your voice heard--the Air Force does care.

Last year the U.S. Air Force lost 84 lives to suicide and this year the statistics have surpassed that. You've seen Wingman down days, taken the suicide awareness training, and have read commentaries from senior Air Force officials on taking care of each other--but no one has talked about bullying in the workplace as a possible factor that may contribute to these feelings of hopelessness or considering suicide.

Believe it or not, this is a true story. Smith and his co-workers are on the road to recovery. After the suicide attempt, many people in the organization decided to report the workplace mistreatment through official channels.

As good leaders we need to adapt our leadership styles depending on the situation, not all leadership styles suit all scenarios. I encourage everyone to take a look at their leadership style, and consider the high-ops tempo, recurring deployments and this holiday season. Take a genuine care in your people.

As a supervisor, do you know the names of your subordinates spouses and children? Do you know what type of events they are facing in their lives? If you don't--you should.

Workplace bullying has many adverse affects. It is counterproductive to our mission success and it ultimately can contribute to a bad outcome. Bottom line, don't allow bullying in the workplace. Report it before it becomes so out of control someone chooses to take their life.