With the #MeToo movement sparked in 2006 and globally popularized in 2017, conversations began taking place about sexual assault, violence and harassment—especially in the workplace.

Many of those reporting on their experiences were not in positions of power, while those being reported were in a position of power (perhaps exemplified most famously by Harvey Weinstein, who used quid pro quo tactics to grant career advantages in exchange for sexual favors). In other words, many are now popularly asserting that those in a titled position are not entitled to abuse or harass.

Harassment in the workplace isn’t just sexual. In fact, workplaces can harbor many forms of harassment, incivility, bullying, rudeness, toxicity and/or hostility. While these definitions may differ, they generally tend to overlap more frequently in their commonalities. Because of these commonalities, I will be referring to many of these words and definitions synonymously.

What exactly is workplace bullying? The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines it as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; or work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done; or verbal abuse.”

Generally speaking, it stems from the bully’s need to control, exert power over or enslave a target or targets.

Who’s the target(s)? WBI’s research shows that targets tend to be independent, honest, ethical, well-liked, guileless, prosocial, empathetic (even to their bullies), and have high emotional intelligence. They also tend to avoid confrontation. Noteworthy is that they are not weak, and kindness should not be mistaken for weakness.

Is work culture a reflection of our culture? A recent article, “How Toxic is Your Workplace Exactly?,” presents a case study of a company with low morale and high turnover due to leadership that promoted a “masculinity contest culture” where winner takes all, dog eats dog, showing no weakness, putting work first, “manning up” and “not being a sissy” reigned supreme. Toxic or harmful masculinity is another way to define this type of culture, one that downplays emotions and rewards aggression in childhood which, over time, manifests into bullying, dominance and aggression in adulthood. Since much of adulthood occurs in the workplace, it’s no wonder such culture permeates and most workers report being affected by bullying.

Because bullies come in all shapes, sizes, genders, sexes, religions, orientations and colors, categorizing bullies and their targets demographically is cautioned. Nevertheless, there are statistics. Statistically, most bullies tend to be men in a position of authority (or higher title) while most targets are women, especially Hispanic.

We all grow up in this culture and, generally speaking, we’re products of our upbringing and how people behave around us. If a manager or colleague behaves uncivilly or is rude to staff/peers, or if an organization gives the okay for incivility to occur, then this tends to disseminate across an organization. Incivility or general rudeness in an organization increases mistakes of both victims and witnesses. Workplace incivility also decreases morale, motivation and performance, which inevitably affects the bottom line. In other words, being nice to your coworkers is good for business.

Moreover, workplace bullying costs workers (and the workplace) their health, both physically and psychologically. Some symptoms of workplace bullying may include neck pain, acute pain, hypertension, cardiovascular symptoms, sleep disturbances, fatigue, adjustment issues, anxiety, depression and even suicide. Absenteeism is another effect of workplace bullying and most victims quit, are transferred or lose their jobs to escape a toxic atmosphere. Such turnover has financial costs. Rhetorically, a healthy and present workforce is also good for business.

Workplaces don’t have to succumb to an aggressive culture. Just as incivility is contagious, so too is kindness. The American Psychological Association recommends starting with leaders to prevent and deter bullying behavior. Leaders and managers/supervisors should disengage from modeling and/or rewarding hostility. Instead, they should model/reward civil and respectful behavior to all humans regardless of title, position or rank. Policy, procedures and how to fairly and timely respond to complaints around bullying should be in place (or developed if there aren’t any). Training should be implemented for all in the organization not just at the time of hire, but on an ongoing basis.

Finally, reminding employees to contact their employee assistance program (EAP) can help as a resource for those experiencing workplace bullying, incivility, harassment, toxicity or rudeness. The EAP helps to alleviate workplace trauma, reduce stress and improve mental health. Those who are participating in bullying behavior can also get help from the EAP in addressing and changing their behavior.

For more information, please contact FEI to help create and sustain a thriving and resilient workforce.