Early success in the workplace for Michelle Durpetti included a promotion to a supervisory position after only two years with a former employer in the 1990s.
What happened next blindsided the eager and enthusiastic businesswoman with grand visions of moving up the corporate ladder – her boss became more demanding while resorting to yelling and tacking on more work. Pleas for assistance and direction were ignored.
One last help request by Durpetti was turned into accusations of insubordination and a threat that she “better watch herself.” A fellow supervisor also was no longer friendly, making belligerent late-night phone calls to her home.
“I began to question myself, my stress level was high, and I felt very isolated from everyone else at work,” said Durpetti, a licensed clinical social worker. “It was a constant feeling of being on edge, and I felt like I couldn’t enjoy the rest of my life because of how I was being treated.”
Millions of employees such as Durpetti are victimized by workplace bullying each day, a growing trend nationally and locally that creates a toxic office environment and stressful home life.
After filing a complaint to upper management, the boss and fellow supervisor were forced to resign. Durpetti left a short time later, following the lead of more than 20 employees who did the same during her tenure with the company.
Durpetti is now the director at Advantage EAP Services at Samaritan Counseling Center in Algonquin. She also counsels bullies and those who have been bullied, and provides workplace training to prevent it.
“It probably took me a year before I actually felt like there were people I could trust,” Durpetti said. “My story had a good ending, but most of them don’t end that way.”
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
About one-third of workers said they have been bullied in the workplace, according to a nationwide study by CareerBuilder, a Chicago-based human resources company. Those who felt victimized increased to 35 percent from 27 percent last year.
The most common ways workers reported bullying were 42 percent who said they were falsely accused of making mistakes and 39 percent who said they were ignored.
Other complaints included being criticized and yelled at in front of co-workers, as well as being gossiped about and purposely excluded from projects or meetings, the study shows.
“Workplace bullying is something that has always been there, but people are just starting to see the damage,” said licensed clinical social worker Sheri Bland, who provides business and individual training and counseling on workplace bullying. “People’s careers and livelihood are destroyed over this.”
The majority of those surveyed pointed to their bosses (48 percent) and co-workers (45 percent) as the perpetrators, according to the study. Thirty-one percent said they have been picked on by customers, while 26 percent accused someone higher on the corporate ladder than their superior.
“Bullies tend to target the popular, smart people who are dedicated and want to do a good job,” Durpetti said. “To the bully, it’s all about power and control because they feel threatened.”
The bully is usually jealous, envious or feels threatened by the target. They also have a common vulnerability that gets preyed upon.
“A lot of times people think the target is a weak person, and that can be true,” Bland said. “But frequently it is someone considered a threat because they believe bullying can eliminate the competition and make them look good.”
Those who are constantly bullied follow a typical mental chain of events, Bland said.
It starts with self-doubt and questioning whether they are really being bullied, which is followed by eroding self-esteem if the issue persists, she said. That sometimes leads to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, that eventually affect production in the workplace.
Thirty percent of people who said they were bullied have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to national data compiled by the Bellingham, Wash.-based Workplace Bullying Institute. An additional 29 percent said they have contemplated suicide.
“Given the level of health harm this leads to, you are looking at an occupational health hazard that is just getting magnified,” said Gary Namie, executive director at the institute. “It seems like there is a license to abuse out there right now, and people are exploiting it.”
In McHenry County, the most extreme cases included competent, confident men and women who start withdrawing and feeling crazy.
“Some people are really depressed because they don’t know what to do,” Durpetti said. “They are spending 40-plus hours a week in a bad environment, then have to go home and deal with their own personal problems. They are left feeling like they have nowhere to turn.”
The CareerBuilder study also found that nearly half of workers don’t confront their bullies, and the majority of incidents go unreported.
A struggling economy also has magnified the issue.
Workers who previously felt threatened or bullied would leave and find another job, experts said. With the county unemployment rate hovering at 7.7 percent, quitting is no longer an option for many.
“People are trapped because there is no escape route to another job,” Namie said. “This lets management know that they can get away with more.”
“I’ve seen everything from a cleaning lady to those in high-power sales and administrative positions scared to leave because there isn’t anything else out there,” she said. “There are also the older, tenured folks being belittled by some new hotshot.”
To combat the issue, many states are moving forward with the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. The bill aims to treat the issue on the same level as sexual harassment and discrimination, but also would protect employers who have an anti-bullying policy in place.
Illinois is the 15th of 20 states to introduce some version of the bill. It has yet to pass and needs new sponsors for the upcoming legislative session.
A total of 2.5 percent of employers were given credit by their employees for dealing with workplace bullying complaints thoroughly and adequately, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.
In addition to a policy detailing acceptable behaviors, reporting procedures and consequences, all employees should be trained and educated, experts said. If a company does not have a human resources officer, someone should be dedicated to handling complaints.
“Somebody, somewhere with authority needs to be able to take action,” Bland said. “The bottom line is that these companies need to take complaints seriously, and then train the employees. It starts with a culture change.”