Talya Meyerowitz recently asked a group of CEO's and entrepreneurs to think about a personal encounter that made them feel belittled and humiliated. It didn't matter if the incident had just happened or if it occurred 20 years ago.
"Go back to that feeling, whether it was on the school yard or in the board room," she said. "Now imagine what it's like to go in every day and have to interact with that same person who did that to you."
Meyerowitz is director of alumni relations at Rochester Institute of Technology, and an entrepreneur. She's a speaker, coach, and consultant who focuses on creating healthy workplaces, and is often asked to speak about workplace aggression. She recently gave a lecture at Nazareth College, and she's a strong advocate of the Healthy Workplace Bill.
The bill or a version of it has been introduced in more than half of the country's state legislatures, including in New York State. The bill says that workers need protection from ill-intended actions taken by others, including bosses, for reasons that have nothing to do with job performance.
"Organizations are like family systems," Meyerowitz says. "Day in and day out that person is there and you need your job. We don't all have the luxury of having the financial resources that allow us to leave. So you go home and you've got a pit in your stomach knowing that the next day you have to get up and do it all over again."
Workplace aggression is a growing and rapidly changing phenomenon, Meyerowitz says. It takes different forms, she says, and has a startling impact on individuals and businesses.
"I've had very high-level people talk about someone they worked with who nearly derailed their career, and for some it did," she says.
Workplace aggression often takes the form of bullying and harassment, Meyerowitz says. Though it can become physical, she says, usually it's psychological. And it frequently starts with something so mild that it may seem silly, she says.
"There's a continuum," Meyerowitz says "You start out with rude behaviors like the eye roll. Or you're in a good mood and you go into the office and say 'Good morning,' and your co-worker looks the other way."
When you tolerate those behaviors, she says, they become an acceptable part of the office culture, and they can gradually escalate to mild bullying.
"I see a lot of people who will purposely leave someone off the e-mail chain or worse, they'll leave them out of a meeting knowing it's important to their job," she says. "Now we're starting to see sabotage."
This behavior can eventually graduate to severe bullying, which Meyerowitz describes as repetitive and highly targeted.
"At this point, the bully is choosing when, where, and how," she says. The bully is doing something they know will have maximum impact on another individual, she says.
Research varies on the prevalence of workplace aggression, but Forbes recently reported that in a study involving more than 2,200 employees, more than 95 percent said that they have experienced bullying and aggression at work. And more than 50 percent said it went on for more than five years.
Meyerowitz says that she first understood workplace aggression as a topic of interest when she conducted a session on it for a women's leadership conference through RIT.
"Seats for that session filled within two hours from the time it was announced," she says. "It had nothing to do with me; it was all about the title."
A second session was added, she says, with the same result. The sessions started with a discussion of how women tend to communicate and the societal expectations of working women.
Women display aggression in the workplace differently than men, Meyerowitz says, and according to some research, their targets are mostly other women. Some research suggests that women may feel threatened by other women because they are competing for fewer positions of responsibility and authority.
Men tend to display aggression in the workplace in a less gender-specific way, she says.
Depending on the office culture, Meyerowitz says, identifying aggression isn't easy and the aggressors are often not who you'd expect. Sometimes the aggression is overt and everyone is aware of it, she says, but no one is willing to speak up out of fear of retaliation. Sometimes the office bully is not only protected, Meyerowitz says, but rewarded.
And the bully and the person being bullied are typically not the personality types most people expect, she says. Rather than it being the loud and bombastic person versus the shy and less talkative individual, there's a tendency for both to be extroverted and likeable colleagues, according to some research.
US employers have been slow to respond to workplace aggression, often arguing that it doesn't exist. A 2007 WBI-Zogby survey showed that when employers are told about aggression in their organizations, nearly 50 percent do nothing, and 18 percent make the problem worse by retaliating against the employee who reported it.
Though some business leaders are dismissive of the issue, aggression in the workplace can come at a high cost in the form of higher absenteeism, higher employee health costs, excessive training and retraining, increased risk for litigation, and even worse, a greater risk for violence.
But the most likely result is that businesses lose talented employees for what can seem like ambiguous and preventable reasons: a highly valued employee leaves without a job prospect, for example, or an employee isn't honest about why he or she quit.
Meyerowitz tells clients to pay attention to the level of incivility in their offices. Have clearly written policies for how employees should treat their co-workers. Consider having an independent source conduct a climate survey to gauge how people feel about their job and their work environment.
She also recommends having a safe and confidential process for dealing with complaints — one that is designed to correct problems, but removes fear of reprisals.
Meyerowitz says that she advises employees who are experiencing bullying to document everything, including what was said and how you responded. Details including time and place are important because when people are bullied, their emotions may prevent them from remembering exactly what happened even days after the incident.
But sometimes Meyerowitz tells people that they may have to leave a job that they otherwise like.
"When you go into the workplace, the very last thing you should have to deal with is any BS with relationships," Meyerowitz says. "It should be positive."