Time was, workers counted the days until they reached age 65, which also heralded the beginning of their retirement years.
But times have changed.
In the aftermath of a pandemic, and a turbulent, constant changing economy, a late 2022 online survey of American workers revealed that most workers (55%) plan on working in retirement, either part-time (37%) or full-time (18%).
Many believe simply don’t believe they will have enough money to finance their later years, and their employer retirement benefits will be less than expected (17%), as well as Social Security benefits (33%), or will need later health benefits (27%). More than one in four workers (27%) indicate their financial situation worsened since the pandemic began.
Others find the sense of purpose and satisfaction they get on the job is essential: for them, to keep working is to keep living.
But along with the perks of paychecks and promise of pensions, many older workers are finding an unexpected challenge at work: increasingly, they are chosen as the targets of bullying.
The Look and Feel of Workplace Bullying
In a recent webinar on bullying and older workers, counselor educators Judy Skorek and Kathy Bonnar defined workplace bullying as “a systematic, consistent sequence of abusive and intimidating behaviors by one individual directed at another so that the target is stigmatized.” Bullying perpetrated by a group is popularly called “mobbing.”
Skorek also describes the phenomenon in less antiseptic terms: “It’s sort of like getting beat up everyday, even though no one’s touching you,” she says. “It’s nothing short of psychological rape.”
Common bullying behavior may include:
- Throwing temper tantrums
- Refusing to delegate work
- Spreading rumors about the target
- Giving unsubstantiated criticism
- Making unrealistic job demands
- Threatening a firing or layoff
- Removing work responsibilities arbitrarily, and
- Spreading rumors or making humiliating comments about the target in public.
But the most damaging bullying behavior may be most simple and covert: simply preventing the target from getting the information he or she needs to do a good job. In many cases, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the information-starved worker, stressed by the consistent bad behavior, actually becomes a poor performer on the job — frequently ill and often calling in absent.
Skorek and Bonnar also cite a few studies and statistics illustrating the reality of the problem. Among them:
- 29% of workers age 55 and older said they’d been bullied on the job
- 33% of between the ages of 50 and 64 said they have been bullied at work
- 60% of workplace bullies are men who tend to bully both males and females equally
- 72% of workplace bullies are bosses, and
- 72% of workers polled are aware that workplace bullying occurs.
The experts caution, however, that even these numbers helping to illustrate the bullies and the bullied are likely wildly misleading, as so few workers come forth to report the bad behavior.
Who Gets Bullied — And Why
Incidents of cyberbullying and schoolyard bullying appear more frequently in the news these days — particularly when the targets are seriously injured or driven to suicide. But Skorek and Bonnar are quick to distinguish those forms of abuse from workplace bullying, where the targets are perversely most often the best and the brightest, the most well-liked and competent workers.
Older workers, many of whom have institutional knowledge and expertise accumulated over years on the job, often fit that bill. In addition, many older workers tend to work more collaboratively, and are happy to work to make their co-workers look good — an altruistic trait that also makes them easier targets of bullies, and less likely to report the bad behavior.
Another reality that makes bullying hard to quash: Older workers typically have tougher times switching to new jobs, so are more likely to tolerate abuse at work in the interest of keeping their jobs and the health insurance coverage it affords.
“What bothers me more than anything is that there are so few ways to help the targets,” says Skorek, who says that bullied workers most often leave their jobs rather than attempt to end the abuse. She says that even those who turn to human resource personnel or counselors for help most often find those professionals are not versed in the particulars of handling workplace bullying and its effects.
Bonnar adds that many bullies see their behavior as an effective part of their own personalities, so are unlikely to quit bullying based on mild entreaties. “And older adult employees who come forward to complain about bullying are told: ‘You’ve worked a long time. You should be able to handle this’,” she says.
Why Bullies Endure
Why we’re not quickly nipping this problem in the bud: Many employers don’t see it to be in their best interests to intervene when employees are bullied.
“Employers often want to drive out the more experienced, typically higher paid workers,” according to Gary Namie. An organizational psychologist, Namie is co-author of The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job and co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute.
The other “co” in both cases is his wife, clinical psychologist Ruth Namie, whose own experiences as a target of being bullied by a female supervisor she describes as “the boss from hell” served as the impetus for the book and the institute.
Gary Namie says most employers are aware that it’s difficult to plead and prove a case of workplace bullying, which usually includes the high cost of hiring legal help, which allows them to keep complacent. “Their attitude is: ‘So sue us’,” he says.
Also, many workplace bullies — typically those responsible for supervising others on the job — are also “the money people” in the organization, helping to pad the corporate coffers. No matter that they’re jerks at work, they keep the place afloat financially, so they’re kept on the job.
But Is it Legal?
The most sweeping federal law aiming at protecting employees, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, bans employers in workplaces with 15 or more employees from using race, skin color, gender, religious beliefs, or national origin as the basis of any employment decision. And another federal law, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, protects some job applicants and employees who are age 40 or older by banning discrimination based on age in workplaces with 20 or more employees. An amendment to that law, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, also makes it illegal to use an employee’s age as the basis for discriminating in workplace benefits and staff-cutting programs.
Taken together, these laws may offer some protection for those bullied on the job — but only if a worker is targeted specifically because of one of the traits enumerated, such as race, gender, age, or national origin. But in reality, it is often difficult to pinpoint a bully’s motivation, and if the bad behavior is spurred by one of the usual culprits — jealousy, personal, dislike, feelings of inadequacy — then no current law squarely applies to prohibit it.
Still, not all is legal gloom and doom.
In many ways, the trajectory of workplace bullying and legal efforts to stem it echo the history of efforts to prevent sexual harassment on the job that began in earnest about a quarter of a century ago.
In 1991, at the hearings considering Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, law professor Anita Hill came forward to testify he had sexually harassed her while acting as her supervisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While Thomas was subsequently narrowly confirmed to take the post, the hearings, watched by a huge national viewing audience, did much to elevate public consciousness and understanding of the topic of sexual harassment. After that, many workers — most of them women — began to talk about and take action against abusive workplace behavior for the first time. Laws were strengthened to define and prohibit sexual harassment, and mandatory training on the topic went into effect in many workplaces.
In the last decade, the Healthy Workplace Bill has been introduced in 31 state legislatures. While differing slightly in form and format, the law holds employers accountable for harmful cruelty at work as well as allowing the bullied to sue their bullies individually.
The hope is that history will repeat itself in that more individuals will speak up about being bullied on the job — and take action to stop it.