Adult bullying – subtle nastiness or open attack

Do you usually describe the talk at your working place as “raw but friendly?” If so, watch out! That sort of communication climate may well be a breeding ground for bullying.
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Do you usually describe the talk at your working place as “raw but friendly?” If so, watch out! That sort of communication climate may well be a breeding ground for bullying.

Insulting discrimination, or adult bullying as it is also called, is a common problem at our workplaces. According to investigations, every ninth working person has been subjected to it, and women and men are affected more or less equally. Bullying comes in many different forms. Ignoring a person, getting up and leaving when somebody comes into the room, constant backchat and holding back information are some examples. Sometimes it is clear to others what is going on, but there are often just small signals which are only noticed by the person affected. Ilona Björk Bovin is a graduate sociologist and work environment consultant. She has worked with discrimination in working life for 15 years and has written a book on the subject.
– We usually refer to it as subtle nastiness, she says. It may be pointed looks, or people stop saying hello. Sometimes it is very subtle, but just as unpleasant for the person involved.
She says that almost anybody can be a victim of bullying. In contrast, those who bully often have some qualities in common; greed for power, envy and poor self-esteem are common background factors.

Ilona Björk Bovin, work environment consultant.

Negative respect
– People who do not dare to stand up for themselves and their opinions are more likely than others to use unfair methods to get what they want. They need to put other people down to assert themselves, she says.
According to Ilona Björk Bovin it is not uncommon, either, for people who bully to have a leading role in the working group.
– It is often somebody who others have negative respect for. People are a little scared to stand up against this person and some are maybe afraid of being bullied themselves. Then it often becomes like a silent mob that says nothing, even though they see what is going on.
She says that the risk of bullying is greater at a company with an unhealthy culture. If vulgar talk and sexual jokes are accepted, it is more likely that people will be insulted and feel bad than if you have a more professional attitude to each other.
– This is very much a leadership issue. If the manager is weak and unclear and perhaps uses vulgar language, it becomes acceptable for others to do it. Sometimes it is the manager who is behind the bullying, and then there is yet another dimension to the problem.

Avoid bullying at work

Ilona Björk Bovin, together with Krister Skoglund, is the author of the handbook, ”Avoid bullying at work” from 2008. The book describes how insulting discrimination arises and what it covers, as well as practical advice on how to counteract it. The book may be ordered from Prevent at or

Difficult to solve
Ilona Björk Bovin says that it can be very difficult to solve a bullying situation that has been going on for a long time. Her first piece of advice is to work preventively. Discuss what good communication involves and how people like to be treated.
– In an open, healthy social climate, where everybody knows what applies, it is much more difficult for insulting behaviour to get a foothold. It is also a question of education and it is important that everybody understands what offensive behaviour really is and what effects it can have.
If a bullying situation should still arise, it is important to act as quickly as possible, says Ilona Björk Bovin. If you notice that a colleague stops saying hello or acts in an offhand way, it is best to deal with it immediately.
– Confront the person and ask why he or she has stopped saying hello, for example. Such behaviour among adults is really rather embarrassing and it will probably stop if you take up the issue. However, not everybody dares to take on a discussion like that, and then you must discuss the problem with your manager instead. Bullying seldom stops on its own.
Colleagues also have a responsibility to each other.
– It is important that those around are not just passive bystanders, but try to show moral courage together and question the behaviour of a bully, says Ilona Björk Bovin.
Linda Sundgren

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