Addressing issues of workplace harassment:

Counseling the targets

Workplace violence has recently received attention because of the killing of several individuals by their coworkers. However, more common are passive and nonfatal forms of aggressive behavior that are manifested as psychological and emotional harassment. Workplace harassment includes dysfunctional personal interactions characterized by bullying behaviors, personal attacks, and attempts to denigrate others. Targets of workplace harassment may experience stress, depression, low self-esteem, loss of sleep, and even posttraumatic stress disorder. Strategies that counselors can use to work effectively with targets are discussed. Workplace environments are fraught with many challenges, but none are as prevalent and insidious as harassment from coworkers or supervisors (Baron & Neuman, 1996; Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Hjelt-Black, 1994; Davenport, Schwartz, & Elliot, 1999; Einarsen, 2000;Field, 1996; Freiberg, 1998; Hoel,! Rayner, & Cooper, 1999; Leymann, 1990; Marano, 1995; Quine, 1999; Vartia, 2001; Yamada, 2000). Workplace harassment occurs when an individual is the target of aggressive behavior by another coworker (Einarsen, 2000; Leymann, 1990) or from a number of other coworkers (Davenport et al., 1999; Leymann, 1990). Workplace harassment can include yelling, glaring, cursing, temper tantrums, withholding of information and resources, public humiliation, refusal to delegate work, the arbitrary removal of responsibilities, unrealistic work demands (Anonymous, 2000; Davenport et al., 1999; Keashly, 1998; Leymann, 1990; Quine, 1999; Vartia, 2001; Yamada, 2000), and in some instances even physical aggression (Leymann, 1990). These behaviors often occur consistently over time (Brodsky, 1976; Leymann, 1990) and are designed to humiliate and intimidate the target (Davenport et al., 1999; Keashly, 1998; Keashly, Trott, & MacLean, 1994; Leymann, 1990). Such workplace ! behavior is referred to by a variety of terms including mobbing (Davenport et al., 1999; Leymann, 1990), workplace bullying (Field, 1996; Hoel et al., 1999; Namie & Namie, 2000), workplace mistreatment (Price Spratlen, 1994), emotional abuse (Keashly, 1998), workplace aggression (Baron & Neuman, 1996; Neuman & Baron, 1998), work abuse (Wyatt & Hare, 1997), and workplace harassment (Bjorkqvist et al., 1994; Brodsky, 1976). Meanwhile, in the literature, individuals who experience workplace harassment are referred to as "targets" (Namie & Namie, 2000). The International Labor Organization (ILO) has identified workplace harassment as one of the most rapidly increasing workplace problems (Chappell & Di Martino, 1998). In the United States, more than 4 million workers per year are likely to experience harassment while on the job (Davenport et al., 1999). No profession seems to be immune from workplace ha! rassment. It occurs across the occupational spectrum from manufacturing and retail (Baron & Neuman, 1996; Namie & Namie, 2000) to higher education (Bjorkqvist et al., 1994; Price Spratlen, 1995) and health (Anonymous, 2000; Quine, 1999). Despite its prevalence, workplace harassment is often underreported and receives less attention than workplace violence (Freiberg, 1998; Neuman & Baron, 1998). The purpose of this article is to describe workplace harassment and the implications for counseling clients who are targets of such behavior. More specifically, we discuss the key components of workplace harassment and the psychological and professional impact that it has on targets. We also discuss how counselors can identify and work with targets of workplace harassment. Despite the prevalence of workplace harassment (Keashly, 2001), there is limited information that describes how counselors can address this growing workp! lace problem. By describing its characteristics, we can help counselors recognize and assist clients who are attempting to cope with the effects of workplace harassment. Because work is a significant part of peopleís lives, it is essential that counselors are aware of the impact of this increasingly common workplace condition (Davenport et al., 1999; Field, 1996). THE CONCEPT OF WORKPLACE HARASSMENT Workplace harassment often includes dysfunctional personal interactions among individuals that involve abusive and intimidating behaviors that are designed to demean the target (Anonymous, 2000; Bjorkqvist et al., 1994; Davenport et al., 1999; Field, 1996; Quine, 1999; Keashly et al., 1994; Leymann, 1990; Marano, 1995; Price Spratlen, 1994). This behavior is manifested in yelling at staff, temper tantrums, refusal to delegate work, spreading rumors about the target, unsubstantiated criticism, glaring, ridicule, isolation, attacks on the targetís self! -esteem, and the arbitrary removal of responsibilities (Baron & Neuman, 1996; Davenport et al., 1999; Einarsen, 2000; Leymann, 1990; Namie & Namie, 2000). Other behaviors include threats of job loss, public humiliation, or withholding of support and information. These behaviors may include verbal and nonverbal aggression that is manifested in an overt or covert manner (Baron & Neuman, 1996; Keashly, 1998; Keashly et al., 1994; Marano, 1995).. Aggressive behavior is usually considered workplace harassment when the intention is to negatively affect the target (Davenport et al., 1999; Leymann, 1990; Quine, 1999). A key element of workplace harassment is that it occurs on a regular basis, often daily, and that there is an observable pattern of this behavior over time (Brodsky, 1976; Davenport et al., 1999; Einarsen, 2000; Keashly, 1998; Leymann, 1990). Based on a review of the literature, Hoel et al. (1999) concluded that workplace harassment is no! t merely isolated belligerent behaviors but rather a consistent sequence of antagonistic actions toward the target. Repeated exposure to such harassment can result in severe psychological and emotional distress (Davenport et al., 1999; Leymann, 1990; Namie & Namie, 2000). The perpetrators of workplace harassment can include those in supervisory roles or other coworkers (Bjorkqvist et al., 1994; Davenport et al., 1999; Keashly et al., 1994; Namie & Namie, 2000; Quine, 1999). Furthermore, workplace harassment transcends gender because both men and women engage in these behaviors (Field, 1996; Marano, 1995; Namie & Namie, 2000). Currently, men are more likely to be identified as perpetrators of workplace harassment (Neuman & Baron, 1998), although women are equally likely to engage in such workplace behavior (Field, 1996; Keashly et al., 1994; Marano, 1995; Namie & Namie, 2000). IMPACT OF WORKPLACE HARASSMENT Workplace! harassment has major economic costs to organizations (Brodsky, 1976; Davenport et al., 1999; Freiberg, 1998; Hoel et al., 1999; Keashly, 2001) and serious personal and professional costs for the targets (Brodsky, 1976; Davenport et al., 1999; Leymann, 1990; Yamada, 2000). Available studies clearly document the negative impact of workplace harassment on the psychological and professional health of the targets. The effect of workplace harassment has been investigated among workers in a variety of occupations. Baron and Neuman (1996) surveyed individuals in health, retail, manufacturing, finance, food service, and government. The participants included 178 full-time employees (92 women and 86 men) who had held their current position between 1 and 5 years. The study indicated that verbal and passive aggression, such as not contradicting rumors about the target and not providing important information or support, were frequently reported in the workplace. Direct! forms of aggression that enabled the perpetrator to harm the target were also more commonly reported than indirect aggression. The study concluded that perpetrators preferred direct forms of aggression over indirect forms of aggression because the former was more effective in inflicting harm on the target. Meanwhile, passive aggression that involved not sharing crucial information, not contradicting rumors, and not providing support to the target was preferred by perpetrators over active aggression. Passive aggressive forms of harassment were preferred because it was more difficult for the target to identify the source and purpose of the negative behavior. Similarly, Keashly et al. (1994) found that 14% of students who were employed in entry-level positions in various occupations had experienced several types of abusive behaviors. The more common behaviors included being degraded intellectually, demeaned in public, addressed sarcastically, and glowered at; and temper outburst! s and unreasonable work demands. The more frequently targets were subjected to the abusive behavior the more severely they were affected by the experience, and this led to lower job satisfaction. Most of the targets chose to deal with the negative treatment in an indirect manner. The most common way of handling the harassment was to ignore the behavior. Other ways of addressing the situation included avoiding the perpetrator or discussing the issue directly with the perpetrator. Finally, 13% of participants chose to leave the organization (Keashly et al., 1994). Harnessing the potential of the Internet, Namie and Namie (2000) analyzed the data from a convenience sample of the first 200 respondents to respond to a survey posted on their Web site. The participants included 154 targets of harassment and 46 witnesses of workplace harassment. Commonly reported behaviors included verbal threats and subversive behaviors, secrecy, blames for mistakes, censure for their work, th! reats of job loss, personal slurs, humiliation, excluding the target, and taking credit for the targetís work. Seventy-five percent of the targets reported that the harassment stopped only when they left the position. The effects of harassment reported by targets included stress (79.4%), depressive symptom (64.7%), tiredness (64%), lack of confidence (59%), humiliation and guilt (58%), obsessive thoughts and nightmares (58%), inability to concentrate (56%), and sleep difficulties (53%). The study also found that those who had experienced the harassment for a year or less reported regularly intrusive negative thoughts about the event (81.25%). Meanwhile, those whose harassment experience spanned between 18 months to more than 10 years continued to report thinking regularly about their experience (Namie & Namie, 2000). In a study of municipal workers, Vartia (2001) examined the psychological impact of harassment on targets, on witnesses of harassment, and on individuals who ! worked in an environment that was harassment free. The participants included 949 individuals of which 10% identified themselves as targets and 9% had witnessed harassment in the workplace. Targets were likely to report greater general stress, mental pressure, and lower confidence levels than those who had witnessed harassment or those who had not experienced workplace harassment. Vartia (2001) reported that 80% of targets indicated that this was their first experience with workplace harassment and that the harassment began unexpectedly. Being a target was predictive of all stress assessed in the study. Targets of harassment often experienced multiple types of harassing behaviors simultaneously. Compared with those who had not experienced harassment, targets of workplace harassment were more likely to use sleeping aids. Harassment had a detrimental impact on targets and on witnesses of harassment, both of whom reported greater stress than workers who! were not exposed to workplace harassment. The study reported a significant relationship between harassment and stress after controlling for other work environment variables. Eighteen percent of targets had missed work at least once due to the harassment they experienced at work (Vartia, 2001). Workplace harassment has also been investigated in specific occupational fields such as heath care. A study of nurses in Australia found that 80% of the participants reported that harassment in the workplace caused them to feel afraid, helpless, angry, depressed, experience sleep problems, headaches, stomach trouble, decreased confidence, weeping, sexual difficulties, and reduced ability to relax. These effects had a negative impact on the home life and social relationships of the targets of harassment (Anonymous, 2000). As a result of their experience, 60% of targets availed themselves of some kind of leave of absence from work, either paid or unpaid. In another st! udy of 1,580 health employees, Quine (1999) found that 38% of the respondents had experienced harassment a year prior to the study. The most common behaviors included changing of the rules or objectives, not providing crucial information, isolation, stress to perform, and being excluded. Individuals who were harassed were less satisfied with their jobs, experienced higher levels of work stress, exhibited symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression, and were more likely to express a desire to leave their position. The study concluded that workplace harassment resulted in severe psychological distress and reduced job satisfaction. Meanwhile, 42% of participants who had not experienced harassment reported that they had witnessed others being targeted. Given the large number of respondents who had witnessed harassment, the study concluded that harassment in the workplace was not an illusion of the targets. Workplace harassment has also been studied in higher e! ducation where it has been investigated among both professional staff and faculty. Price Spratlen (1995) investigated faculty and staff perceptions of the nature and effect of mistreatment they had experienced at work. From a random sample of 1,585 faculty, professional, and classified staff, 806 responded to the survey. The study found that 23% of participants reported experiencing harassment at work. Forty-eight percent of participants who were subjected to harassment identified a supervisor or a manager as the perpetrator, whereas 31% identified professional colleagues as the harassers. Professional staff and female professional staff were more likely to identify the perpetrator as male, although men and women were equally likely to engage in harassing behavior. The harassment adversely affected the work performance of targets and resulted in lower job satisfaction, self-respect, and confidence. Bjorkqvist et al. (1994) also examined workplace harassment in higher ed! ucation. The study included 338 participants involved in all aspects of higher education, including teaching, research, and administration. Female participants were more likely to report workplace harassment as were those involved in administrative and service positions. Individuals most likely to be identified as perpetrators of workplace harassment were supervisors. As a result of their experience, targets reported anxiety, depression, aggressive feelings, sleeplessness, inability to focus, dejection, a fear of social situations, and a sense of apathy. The study concluded that targets exhibited stress symptoms that were indicative of posttraumatic stress disorder. In addition to the consequences of workplace harassment that are identified in the research, other serious effects may include posttraumatic stress disorder (Bjorkqvist et al., 1994; Davenport et al., 1999; Field, 1996; Leymann, 1990; Namie & Namie, 2000), extreme anxiety, despair and volun! tary unemployment, suicide, and, in extreme situations, workplace violence (Davenport et al., 1999; Freiberg, 1998; Leymann, 1990). IMPLICATIONS FOR COUNSELING TARGETS As the research suggests, workplace harassment often has a deleterious effect on the well-being of targets. It is, therefore, necessary that counselors be aware of this growing workplace malady, the manner in which it presents in clients, and the effects that workplace harassment has on the mental health and career development of targets. There are several issues that counselors must recognize as they work with targets of workplace harassment. Critical to the diagnosis and treatment of targets is the counselors knowledge and awareness of workplace harassment. Counselor awareness is paramount because harassment is so insidious that clients often do not recognize that they are targets (Davenport et al., 1999; Field, 1996; Namie & Namie, 2000). A lack of awarenes! s about workplace harassment can lead counselors to hold targets responsible for their condition or diagnose them inaccurately with a preexisting condition (Davenport et al., 1999). The effect of inaccurate diagnosis often intensifies the suffering of targets (Davenport et al., 1999). Because of the insidiousness of workplace harassment, many clients are often unable to recognize that they are targets and are likely to seek counseling for such mental health conditions as depression, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder (Davenport et al., 1999; Leymann, 1990; Quine, 1999), and relationship problems (Anonymous, 2000). Therefore, it is critical that counselors acquire an understanding of the their clientís work context so that they can determine if the symptoms are consistent with the effects of workplace harassment. Some of the most common effects of workplace harassment are depression (Brodsky, 1976) and a sense of powerlessn! ess (Anonymous, 2000) that stem from targetsí beliefs that no one will believe their experience (Namie & Namie, 2000; Wyatt & Hare, 1997). These feelings are often intensified when targets are exposed to systematic intimidation with little recourse. Therefore, it is critical that counselors communicate their understanding of the targetís experience. Counselors can demonstrate that they understand targets by helping them name and understand their experiences. Such counselor behaviors will validate the experience of the client and renew their self-esteem, an area that is often affected by workplace harassment (Anonymous, 2000; Brodsky, 1976; Davenport et al., 1999). Self-blame, shame, self-deprecation, insecurity, inadequacy, and a lack of selfconfidence (Anonymous, 2000; Davenport et al., 1999; Leymann, 1990; Namie & Namie, 2000; Price Spratlen, 1995) are other feelings that result from workplace harassment. These feelings may contribute to a self-fulf! illing prophecy so that some targets believe that they are not competent workers (Davenport, et al., 1999; Wyatt & Hare, 1997). Counselors need to recognize when such feelings are a result of the persistent assaults that targets experience in the workplace. Counselors can help targets recognize the source of their feelings and assist them to regain their self-confidence. In some situations, harassment in the workplace can result in more serious conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide, and even homicide (Davenport et al., 1999; Freiberg, 1998; Leymann, 1990). Therefore, counselors need to recognize that targets can present with these symptoms and are prepared to take appropriate action. It is especially important for counselors to be alert to signs that targets intend to harm themselves or others. The recent spate of workplace homicides makes such awareness crucial to the prevention of further workplace violence (Freiberg! , 1998). Workplace harassment also has a detrimental impact on relationships with significant others, such as partners, children, and extended family members (Anonymous, 2000; Brodsky, 1976; Wyatt & Hare, 1997). Even though significant others try to support the target, the experience is so incomprehensible that these individuals may question whether the target in some way invites such treatment (Davenport et al., 1999; Namie & Namie, 2000). Furthermore, they may become frustrated with the lack of action on the part of the target to remedy the situation (Wyatt & Hare, 1997). Such reactions may cause targets to further withdraw from family members, thereby increasing their isolation and creating stress within the relationship (Anonymous, 2000). While harassment in the workplace affects the mental health of the targets, it also affects them professionally. One of the results of workplace harassment is the destruction of individualsí careers (Daven! port et al., 1999; Namie & Namie, 2000; Yamada, 2000). As targets contemplate strategies to cope with harassment, some may decide to leave their current position (Bjorkqvist et al., 1994; Davenport et al., 1999; Keashly et al., 1994; Leymann, 1990; Namie & Namie, 2000; Quine, 1999). For these individuals the anxiety of conducting a job search is compounded by the additional anxiety of possible sabotage to their career (Field, 1996). Namie and Namie (2000) offered suggestions, such as identifying individuals who are willing to serve as references, obtaining good letters of recommendation, and even being aware of the law about character defamation that targets of workplace harassment may want to consider as they prepare to find a new position. For their part, counselors can assist the career development process by helping targets identify those strategies that pertain to their situation. Other targets may experience burnout because of the harassment (Wyatt & H! are, 1997) and decide that they need a career change. In these situations, counselors can assist clients to determine if what they need is to change their career or merely an opportunity to work in a less hostile work environment. Once targets make a decision to undertake a career change, counselors can help them identify which new occupational field they would like to enter and the training that is necessary to succeed in that field. One therapeutic intervention that can facilitate the healing process for targets of workplace harassment is bibliotherapy. Counselors can provide targets with information about the topic of workplace harassment. Recently, several books about workplace harassment have been published that describe the experience of targets. Information is also available at the Web site for the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying ( These resources can provide targets with i! nformation, normalize their experiences, and identify strategies for dealing with workplace harassment. In this way, bibliotherapy allows targets to become actively involved in their healing process and gives them a sense of empowerment. Bibliotherapy is a powerful therapeutic intervention that should be implemented in conjunction with counseling. Although bibliotherapy enables targets to acquire knowledge and understanding of their experience, it is also necessary to provide a counseling experience that offers empathic listening, genuineness, hope (Yalom, 1995), and a strong working alliance (Bordin, 1979; Gelso & Carter, 1994). Such an experience will create a therapeutic climate in which targets feel safe to express their feelings. Helping targets deal with the consequences of workplace harassment is a challenging process for counselors. Because workplace harassment can ma! nifest itself differently in targets, it is a complex condition for counselors to recognize, diagnose, and treat. However, as it is becoming increasingly common in the workplace, counselors must be prepared to work effectively with targets. CONCLUSION With the urgent need to understand and prevent workplace violence, counselors and other mental health professionals need to develop the awareness and skills to recognize workplace harassment. A lack of knowledge about this issue is likely to deprive targets of appropriate diagnosis and treatment. In the final analysis, workplace harassment is a violation of fundamental human rights (Keashly, 1998; Price Spratlen, 1995) that often leaves targets physically, psychologically, and professionally scarred. REFERENCES Anonymous. (2000). Nurses find fear in the workplace. Australian Nursing Journal, 5, 6. Baron, R. A., & Neuman, J. H. (1996). 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Consequences of workplace bullying with respect to the well-being of its targets and the observers of bullying. Scandinavian Journal of Work Environmental Health, 1, 63-69. Wyatt, J., & Hare, C. (1997). Work abuse: How to recognize and survive it. Rochester, VT: Schenkman Books. Yalom, I. (1995). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books. Yamada, D. (2000). The phenomenon of "workplace bullying" and the need for status-blind hostile work environment protection. The Georgetown Law Journal, 88, 475-536. Jacqueline Lewis Diane Coursol Kay Herting Wahl Jacqueline Lewis and Diane Coursol, Minnesota State University, Mankato; Kay Herting Wahl, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. ! Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jacqueline Lewis, Department of Counseling and Student Personnel, Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN 56002 (e-mail:

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