Has ‘bullying’ lost its punch? A better approach to discussing workplace harassment

New corporate jargon has a way of catching on quickly. Particular terms or phrases take off in popularity, usually because they help communicate something significant in a way that is efficient and understandable. But the ubiquity of a given term can also lead to its downfall, rendering annoying in the near term and useless in the long term.

Remember when the term "solution" was all the rage? Not too many years ago it was featured in what seemed like every other corporate name or tagline. A solution seemed to be what everybody was offering or wanted to provide. So much so that it eventually lost all its cache, and returned to being just another word or, even worse, one Forbes included in its list of The Most Annoying, Pretentious and Useless Business Jargon. Another casualty of corporate overuse is the phrase to "think outside the box," which if you use it today is more likely to make you sound like someone who thinks inside the box instead.

The rise and fall of such corporate terminology seems inevitable given how quickly we share information and ideas. Except what happens when terms that help us deal with difficult workplace challenges lose their meaning, but the issue itself is as urgent as ever, if not more so?

This is the question Professor David Van Fleet of the Morrison School of Agribusiness, along with Len White Founder of Active Java LLC and developer of Symphony Content Analysis Software, which assists with the collection, analysis, and reporting on text data from a variety of sources. and Ella W. Van Fleet Founder and president of Professional Business Associates. With 35 years of experience in teaching, training, managing, and consulting, plus three interdisciplinary degrees in business and higher education, she specializes in the study of entrepreneurship and workplace violence and terrorism. , sought to address in their research paper titled, “Baseballs or Crickets: On the Meanings of Bullying and Harassment.” This study, recently published in the Journal of Human Resource and Sustainability Studies, finds that the terms bullying and harassment are undergoing a steep decline in their clarity of meaning. So much so that when their usage as a whole is examined, they have become practically interchangeable, and as a result, disturbingly, they seem to be losing their impact in the process.

There’s no clear consensus on the meaning of either term. People choose one or the other, but frequently they are talking about the same thing.

Van Fleet notes that there can seem to be subtle differences in the usage of the terms bullying and harassment. “Harassment may mean a repeated kind of situation and bullying sometimes can be more of a one-off.” Or bullying may be more associated with the young, and harassment can be more associated with something sexually inappropriate. But universally, the study finds, there is no consistent usage of the terms, across different writers and researchers.

A declining will to address the issue

The critical takeaway from this, according to Van Fleet, is that if you’re writing a corporate policy on the subject, don’t get caught struggling with semantics, merely use a term that is inclusive of both. He suggests: inappropriate behavior. He defines inappropriate behavior as behavior that adversely affects employee productivity and their sense of well-being.

I’ve seen organizations with separate policies for bullying and harassment, and there’s no need for that. Unfortunately, they get pressure to implement a policy on one or the other or both. People think they know what they’re talking about, but they don’t.

This is especially urgent in a business environment in which the momentum to address inappropriate behavior seems to be waning. “I was optimistic a few years ago,” Van Fleet says. “There seemed to be a lot of attention being paid to this problem, but now we’re not seeing as much concern.”

In a sense, according to Van Fleet, this is because the newness of the issue, and perhaps even the terminology, has worn off. “Organizations have figured out what the minimum is from a legal liability standpoint,” he says, “and it’s lower than it used to be, so they’re not as concerned. Even proactive organizations are not seeing as much value in addressing inappropriate behavior.”

The exception is sexual harassment, which continues to make big headlines. Meanwhile, other forms of harassment are garnering less concern, including the abuse of managerial power. “There’s an old expression that boss is really just double SOB spelled backward,” notes Van Fleet. “People think that’s just business, that under stress, people get reactionary, but it crosses a line sometimes, which affects productivity and personal wellbeing.”

So, the casualty here isn’t just the clarity of the terms bullying and harassment, it’s the will to institute policies that truly reduce their occurrence.

Getting beyond labels to focus on results

The study used Symphony Content Analysis Software to scan literally hundreds of articles to develop what are called word clouds, which show the frequency with which words appear, and their association with other words. This analysis revealed that both the terms bullying and harassment have been used so much that they’ve basically lost their meaning. That’s why Van Fleet recommends focusing not on the question of which term to use, but on the result of the inappropriate behavior, whatever category it falls under.

Let’s not worry about what you call it. Let’s get beyond the labels and worry about getting rid of that behavior. Inappropriate behavior is a more finite set than good behavior. It’s easier to figure out what that is. If you get rid of more of it, you will automatically increase appropriate behavior.

David Van Fleet and Ella W. Van Fleet, who are married, initially were doing research on effective leadership, and what that actually meant. They found that it was difficult to define effective leadership, but that studying ineffective leadership seemed to be more conducive to a clear definition. This led them to focus on inappropriate behavior being practiced by leaders. From there they broadened their perspective to researching workplace harassment and bullying in general. They still faced the challenge of attempting to quantify findings in some statistically significant manner. That’s when they partnered with Len White, who designed a version of the Symphony Content Analysis Software specifically for this research.

Van Fleet concedes that no matter what term you use, inappropriate behavior is not always easy to define. This is a big part of the challenge of managing it. “There’s a whole range of separate responses that people might have to the same situation. To one person, something might be funny, to another it’s offensive. It can be a difficult line to walk.”

Still, he argues, the remedy is not all that complicated either. “The point is if you realize you offended someone, you don’t act like it didn’t happen, or that they shouldn’t be offended. You need to deal with them individually, explain that you didn’t mean to offend them, and hear them out, too.”

Change must come from the top

Van Fleet suggests that real change in the workplace happens when executive leadership gets involved. “It starts with the board of directors and top management. If they advocate for better behaviors and attitudes and policies, there’s an excellent chance it will get adopted. But if it’s just a human resources policy, then most people won’t even read it.”

Van Fleet says he and his wife want to take their work into the more proactive aspect of this conversation, which is understanding how to better activate employees. He cites the book, “Activate Human Capital: A New Attitude,” by Richard Morrison, as an example of this kind of thinking. They are also considering writing a book about bullying and harassment, which would be more of a step-by-step guide for managers on how to curb or avoid it. We can assume, based on their findings, that they’ll rely on the term inappropriate behavior to help get their point across.

By Joe Bardin

Get the latest from the W. P. Carey School of Business

W. P. Carey News  |  Headlines and deep dives

KnowIT  |  IT news and research

We're committed to your privacy. W. P. Carey uses the information you provide to us only to share our relevant content that you select. You may unsubscribe from these communications at any time. For more information, check out our privacy policy.