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Understanding and Addressing Bullying in the Academic Workplace

Institutional Culture

Understanding and Addressing Bullying in the Academic Workplace

When one thinks of bullying, recent cases of adolescent victims’ suicides come to mind. But it’s not limited to children. Bullying in the academic workplace has been and continues to be an issue that deserves attention.

In a review of the literature on bullying in the academic workplace that appears in the book Workplace Bullying in Higher Education, Loraleigh Keashly and Joel H. Neuman found that the rates of bullying can be anywhere from 18 to 60 percent. “We see that many of the studies don’t use consistent definitions, so it’s difficult to compare results. There is a lot of case study research, but we don’t have any national or international studies that give us a picture of how prevalent it is. We see anecdotes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, various blogs, and even Facebook pages. But we don’t have a really great sense of its prevalence. If I had to guess, I would say probably 30 percent of faculty and staff have experienced bullying in one way or another,” says Jaime Lester, associate professor of higher education at George Mason University and editor of the aforementioned book.

What constitutes bullying?
Defining bullying is an important key to understanding it and its effects on victims and those who witness it. “When I present on bullying to administrators on college campuses, I often receive a very negative response—serious pushback from administrators who I think are worried and concerned that a negative evaluation that a staff or faculty member receives could be perceived as bullying. There’s concern around how we’re defining this and how one gets labeled as a bully,” Lester says.

Frequency and duration are important considerations in bullying. “[To be considered bullying,] it needs to be an event that has happened multiple times over the course of at least several months, and it often has an escalating aspect to it,” Lester says.

In the corporate environment bullies tend to have higher power culturally or contextually than do their victims. “That is not necessarily the case in higher education. Case in point: a student who bullies a faculty member in the classroom setting,” Lester says.

Bullying can have many negative consequences for victims as well as for witnesses to the behavior. The psychological stress created by bullying can lead to health problems, including depression and anxiety. Victims might miss work or quit their jobs.

One of the challenges of addressing the issue of bullying is that, with the exception of a few states, bullying is not illegal. Its status is similar to that of sexual harassment 30 to 40 years ago. “There was all this pushback at the time, and then came some legal framing, and now it’s considered illegal,” Lester says.

Those who feel that they are victims of bullying have two options: go to the office of equity and diversity if the complaint has to do with legally protected categories (gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, etc.) or file a complaint with the office of human resources.

The institution may or may not have a policy that addresses bullying. Therefore, human resources staff often have to mediate the situation, and they often struggle with how to handle these situations, particularly when the alleged bully is in a powerful position, Lester says. “The lack of legal distinction can create serious frustration as to how these bullies are managed within the organization.”

Lacking a legal framework, institutions often have advocates that work directly with individuals to help them seek employee assistance or psychological services, to mediate the situation, and, at times, to strategize ways to help the alleged perpetrator understand the effects of his or her behavior. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of research on bullies themselves because, as you can imagine, people don’t necessarily stand up and say, ‘I’m a bully. I’d love to participate in your study.’ Anecdotally, HR professionals often tell me that bullies don’t know they’re bullies. They’re not reflecting on their behavior. They don’t necessarily see that their behavior is inappropriate, and they don’t see the impact it is having. When I talk to these advocates, they often tell me they are spending a lot of time trying to help those bullies understand what they’re doing and the impact it has. Without any recourse within the institution or without a state legal framework or federal legal framework, it’s a one-on-one conversation with the hope that the individual will intrinsically desire to change.”

Cultural change
Since bullying is not illegal, perhaps the best approach to dealing with it is making people aware of it. Lester says, “Many institutions have created civility campaigns that have really tried to call attention to this behavior, that have tried to give shape and definition to this behavior so that individuals who are feeling that it’s possible that they are experiencing bullying have a place they can go to talk about whether the behavior falls into this category.

“Like most things in higher education, it requires a cultural understanding and cultural shift, and that really starts with awareness. I also think leaders need to take this seriously and really consider policies. We have sexual harassment policies. We have workplace violence policies and other policies, but often we don’t have bullying policies. That also needs to be discussed and ultimately needs to be integrated within the institution itself.”

Department chairs play an important role in bringing about cultural change and setting expectations for appropriate behavior. “Time and time again I come back to this notion that the most important space is in that individual department or unit because that is ultimately where we spend our daily lives. That’s where we’re interacting with people. That’s where norms and values get created and perpetuated,” Lester says.

Another important step in addressing bullying is to collaborate across units. “On my campus, for example, we have our student affairs staff doing this great work on civility with students, we’ve had our human resources staff do their annual faculty and staff day on civility, and the vice president of human resources developed a policy and so on. But those two units don’t necessarily talk to each other, so we don’t necessarily have a cohesive conversation around bullying that would address all the constituent groups. My belief is that [effectively addressing bullying] will take a better awareness and a better integration of conversation and services because, quite frankly, it happens across these constituent groups. Students bully faculty, faculty bully staff, staff bully faculty, and so on,” Lester says.


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