John P. Frazee, Director of Faculty Relations, University of Colorado-Boulder

Apr 18, 2012

"Bullying" has recently become a hot topic on college campuses The Workplace Bullying Institute defines "bullying" as

repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

Verbal abuse

Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating

Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

I worry, though, about how easily the term can be abused.

About a year ago I did some consulting work for another university where the presenting issue was bullying in an academic department. As I interviewed faculty, staff, and students in the department, it became very clear that the allegation of bullying made by one faculty member--let's call her Professor Smith--had had a strong impact on relationships throughout the department. Opinions were sharply divided about whether Professor Smith was being bullied. Other members of the department were tiptoeing around one another to avoid setting off another round of accusations and denials.

Recognizing that the term "bullying" was a label placed on behavior, not a description of it, I tried to focus my interviews on the observed behavior behind the label. I quickly became apparent that behind the label were a number of conflicts, both interpersonal and professional--but no credible evidence of behavior intended to do personal harm to Professor Smith.

To be sure, Professor Smith felt humiliated and harmed by, for example, the executive committee's decision to assign another faculty member to teach a course she had taught for several years. But she did not make a plausible case that the decision was made with the intention to harm her.

So here's the risk: like "discrimination" and "harassment," "bullying" is a term that characterizes unacceptable behavior. But when used inappropriately, they can divert attention from the real issues in the workplace. Worse, inappropriately using one of these terms can trivialize the real harm done when discrimination, harassment, or bullying occur.

Have you had experience in dealing with allegations of bullying? What has your experience been?