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Bullying – What We Should Do About It
Posted By Horizon NJ Health on January 16, 2014
Tags: Bullying, Sexual harassment
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Pius Chikezie, MD, MPH, FACP, Medical Director, Horizon NJ Health

Q. I am a football fan, and was really surprised and appalled to read about the scandal involving the Miami Dolphins in which one player said he had been bullied by other players. I thought bullying was something you heard about that happened to school kids, but I guess adults still bully and are bullied. What can you tell me about bullying, and what can be done about it?

A. Bullying is simply the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or to aggressively otherwise impose domination over others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power.

There are many ways a bully, or bullies, can exercise their power over someone else. Among children especially, taunting, teasing or otherwise using words in a hurtful manner is a common tactic. Bullies also try to exert their power over others by excluding their victims from their networks of friends and acquaintances, or embarrassing them in public. Bullies can also use physical violence, or the threat of physical violence, to intimidate someone or make them uncomfortable.

In recent years, bullying appears to have become more common, and even more insidiously effective. Bullies may use social media and other electronic means to embarrass and harass their victims. Cyberbullying is as dangerous a form of bullying as we’ve seen – some young people have lost their lives as a result of it.

But as much as there has been a focus on bullying in schools and among youth, the existence of bullying among adults in the workplace cannot be ignored. Adults are more likely to use verbal bullying as opposed to physical bullying, but overall the description and effect is the same as with children - the goal of an adult bully is to gain power over another person, and make himself or herself the dominant adult in a group setting.

In the Dolphins case, an offensive tackle, Jonathan Martin, left the team last season because, he said, he had been bullied by several players in his position group. Over the past two years, Martin said he had had to put up with an increasing amount of harassment from other players, chiefly fellow lineman Richie Incognito. As a rookie last year, Martin and some other rookies on the team allegedly were forced to pay expensive restaurant and bar tabs the veterans ran up, and they were even forced into paying for costly trips to places like Las Vegas as well.

If true, this looked to be a classic example of bullying. In this most celebrated of American workplaces – the NFL locker room – the same examples scared schoolchildren use when they say other kids are bullying them came into the open, but with big, strong adult men involved instead of youngsters. 

How do we best deal with bullying, either in schools, among children in general or among adults in the workplace?

To prevent bullying of children, schools must be much more active in observing this type of behavior among students, both the bullies and the bullied. There need to be anti-bullying policies that are strongly enforced, and education about these policies that lets everyone know that bullying is not acceptable. There also needs to be a culture created that shames those who bully, rather than encourages them. Mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, should be available to counsel both the victims and perpetrators of bullying.

As for adult bullying in the workplace, most corporations have policies regarding certain forms of bullying, such as sexual harassment. But there need to be policies that take a broader look at bullying of all kinds. Companies should produce written guidelines for behavior between peers – and between managers and those they manage – and make sure those policies are taught to each employee upon hire. They should be willing to listen to, record and investigate all allegations of bullying and, if substantiated, institute remedies and discipline if necessary.

In the case of the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell said he was going to look at the workplace culture within his league and formulate a system of rules and policies that will aim to change the culture that leads to harassment, hazing and bullying of players by players. Even in a place such as the NFL, every employee should have the right to a cooperative, peaceful work environment.