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Anna G. Larson, Published September 03 2012

InDepth: Bullying | Silent wars in the workplace: Leaving high school doesn’t always mean leaving the ‘mean girls’ behind

About the "InDepth: Bullying" series

Bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere.

With more attention on the issue nationally, people are stepping up to prevent bullying in schools, workplaces and beyond.

This week, SheSays has been looking at the effects of bullying, what causes bullying and how to deal with the behavior.

FARGO – Silent wars are being waged by women in the workplace every day.

“The tension between women is different than the tension between men or a woman and a man,” said Katherine Crowley, vice president and co-owner of management consulting firm K Squared Enterprises in New York City. “It’s high school all over again.”

Crowley and her colleague Kathi Elster, owner of K Squared Enterprises, lead workshops about managing difficult workplace relationships. The duo has presented at Microsoft, Starbucks, Time Life, Martha Stewart Omni Media and America Express. They most recently authored “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal,” which will be released in November.

The seed was planted for the book when the head of training at Microsoft contacted Crowley and Elster to do a workshop for the company about how to handle “woman haters,” or women who seem to hate other women in the workplace.

Tension between women arises when a desire for friendship isn’t reciprocated, or when one woman feels threatened by the other, Crowley said.

“Our brains are designed to want those relationships,” she said. “When it isn’t reciprocated, suddenly, you’re adversaries.”

A woman can be a threat to another woman if they are a stellar employee.

“First of all, go you for being a great employee,” Crowley said. “If you sense there’s a woman attacking you or bullying you, there’s a good chance she’s threatened by you.”

Women attacking their colleagues may spread rumors, use relational exclusion like purposely excluding someone from meetings, and employ other nonverbal and verbal attacks on self-esteem and work performance she said.

It’s important to note that women – and men – who bully in the workplace aren’t often the overt people, said Denise Hellekson, a licensed independent social worker and clinical associate at The Village Business Institute in Fargo. Hellekson has assisted employers and employees in creating healthy, productive work environments.

“They’re usually the very charming and charismatic people who do it on the sly,” she said. “You wouldn’t expect that type of behavior from them.”

A 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International found that 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, and women who bully often target women in 80 percent of cases. The survey also found that 68 percent of bullying is same-gender harassment.

The bullying starts because the perpetrator knows it will work, and they often have a sense of entitlement, a bloated ego and insecurities, Hellekson said.

“It’s an act of intimidation,” she said. “People who bully rationalize their sense of superiority.”

The attacks on the other person, Hellekson said, are usually not one-time incidents, but instead tend be a pattern of behavior. People may not report incidents of bullying in the workplace because they’re stunned that it’s happening at an adult level.

“The first thing to realize is that if you don’t respond to it, it won’t go away,” she said.

Keeping track of the bullying incidents is important so there’s no “he said, she said” when the matter is presented to a supervisor or human resources representative, Hellekson said.

“Expect that the person bullying will deny everything,” she said.

Reporting incidents and following a company’s protocol for reporting incidents is important, Hellekson said. Not allowing emotions to overtake conversations and gathering a support system are also crucial when dealing with bullying in the workplace. Inviting a supervisor or peer to witness conversations can be beneficial, too, she said.

Crowley and Elster developed a technique to halt counter-attacks on a person who is bullying. The “don’t go there” technique involves pausing before taking a rash action like storming into someone’s office.

“Pause, feel your feelings, and then take professional action,” Crowley said.

Going to a supervisor’s office and stating the facts of the bullying incidents lets the perpetrator know you’re onto them, she said.

Outside of the workplace, it’s important to restore energy and rebuild confidence, Crowley said.

“It never feels good to be the target of bullying,” she said. “We take it personally.”

Bullying in the workplace takes a toll on everybody, Hellekson said. Morale goes down, stress levels go up, the sense of safety is questioned, teamwork diminishes and a lack of trust becomes apparent.

“We don’t have to love everybody we work with,” she said. “But we should feel safe.”