Bullying in Academe

Bullying behavior at your institution can result in lawsuits, high employee turnover costs, productivity declines, low morale and many other problems, writes Raymonda Burgman.

June 15, 2016

Are you trying to lead a committee, department, unit, school, college, university or group through change yet have a bully on your team?

Whenever you meet with colleagues to discuss a change project, this person “aids” the team in eliminating information she says is not germane to the group’s scope of work or charge. As other team members start to speak, this person interrupts and changes the topic. Team members leave the meeting saying how productive the meeting was because they got to the heart of the matter. But the actual fact is that they do not know how to respond to the chilly climate during the meeting because they feel threatened or humiliated. And each feels isolated, thinking he or she is the only one who perceives the comments as harsh and off-putting.

You are not the only one experiencing such situations. According to Morgan State University professor Leah P. Hollis, in Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, more than 60 percent of respondents in an independent study of 175 four-year colleges reported experiencing workplace bullying, compared to less than 40 percent of the general public.

A biting email message, excluding a colleague from the office happy hour invitation or using the silent treatment when asked for an opinion about a new idea proposed by a colleague -- these all are forms of manipulation that we now recognize as bullying. If a supervisor or colleague removes areas of responsibility without explanation, yells at employees in public, constantly monitors employees or sabotages or discounts the quality of an employee’s work, it’s bullying.

The University of Louisville Ombuds Office offers their campus a self-help guide on bullying and succinctly defines bullying as “repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed toward an employee (or a group of employees), which is intended to intimidate and creates a risk to the health and safety of the employee(s).” In the academic environment, bullying derails not only our hopes for a collaborative workplace but also the learning and discovery that are our mission. And with so many people impacted, you can imagine the emotional and psychological toll: anxiety, insomnia, low morale, trouble concentrating and fear of humiliation.

In 2014, HERS partnered with several organizations to look at the pathways to senior leadership in higher education. The research, in which 35 women presidents and senior officers were interviewed, described positive and negative aspects of being top leaders in their respective institutions. Two negative aspects are eerily similar to bullying: scrutiny and criticism, and not fitting in or being heard. Resistance to change and lack of buy-in, in their most extreme forms, are also bullying.

Statistically, men perpetrate most bullying in the workplace, but women are more likely to bully other women and tend to use less explicit forms of bullying. Women may not physically bully, but they will use verbal or indirect bullying, social alienation, intimidation bullying, or cyberbullying. If you witness such incidents, you may question whether you left bullying on a grade school playground.

The High Cost of Bullying

For the leader who encounters a bully on her team, here are some reasons why you should take action.

Usually bullying is about fear and insecurity. Differences in others make some people uncomfortable and foretell troubling consequences if such behavior runs rampant on your campus for faculty members, administrators and students from diverse backgrounds. In her research, Hollis found that bullies disproportionately target women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQA community. And if your college or university is pursuing vigorous diversity and inclusion initiatives, such groups will be greatly affected if a systemic bullying problem exists. The people your institution most wants to attract, retain and develop may have the shortest employment or time on your campus. Those targeted by a bully tend to lose their jobs or quit.

The cost of such staff turnover is high. Some researchers believe workplace bullying costs at a minimum $250 million annually throughout all workplaces. Consider replacing a chief career services administrator. According to data from the College and University Professional Association of Human Resources, the average salary for a person in that position is $74,423, and a conservative estimate is that direct replacement costs will range from 40-60 percent of that salary, or almost $45,000 at the upper end. The total turnover cost, which includes an assortment of benefits, search costs and other impacts to your campus, ranges from 90-200 percent of the employee’s salary. In the worst case, that means it may cost almost $150,000 to replace a single employee.

Can your campus afford to lose $1.5 million because 10 employees voluntarily leave your campus due to avoidable dysfunction? Employee retention especially matters today, given the limited financial resources available on many campuses.

And, in addition to such high turnover costs, your institution may face potential lawsuits, health care costs and productivity declines as a result of bullying behavior. At the very least, in a collaborative work environment, a bully or bullies will impede you from reaching desired outcomes.

Options to Pursue

How can you as an institutional leader help lessen the risk and incidences of bullying -- potentially saving money and building campus morale? Taking action by learning to be a better ally is best for handling and reducing the risk of bullying. Developing people is the business of higher education, and when we work together to reach our goals, we are at our best.

A bully often lacks empathy, so you must teach and require this conduct if you are to make headway against bullying behavior. And you can’t assume that only certain types of people will engage in such behavior -- anyone can be a bully -- which is why you should make “no bullying” a broad mandate.

As you begin forming a no-bullying (and healthy) work environment, ask yourself and colleagues these three simple questions:

  1. Does your supervisor have a positive attitude?
  2. Does the administration respect all employees?
  3. Do your colleagues respect you?

Answering these questions will help you identify the depth and breadth of campus programs needed for faculty members, administrators and students. Sponsoring or championing a course or workshop on ethics and civility in higher education -- open to all students, faculty and staff -- can serve as a signal of community standards of behavior. An active human resources department, which guides people and develops clear policies about bullying, as well as spaces and systems that allow employees to voice discomfort or concerns, is also important.

You must communicate and ensure that bullying behavior won’t be tolerated in any setting at any time. It’s for the greater good to have collaborative work environments where all employees are valued and appreciated.

At the heart of every campus are people who aren’t looking for salvation for one target of bullying but liberation for all of us as we pursue new modes of operation and systems. As campus leaders, our principal strength is that we are not lone agents of good. We can reach out and work with other people to eradicate bullying and create and sustain a community of thinkers, dreamers, learners and innovators. Bullying is everyone’s issue.


Raymonda Burgman is director of HERS Institutes.


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