Twice in the last six months the NY Times has featured articles about women bullying other women at work. In January 2009 it was A Sisterhood of Workplace Infighting. More recently, on May 10, Mother’s Day, it was Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work.

This last article seems to have touched a nerve.  A veritable frenzy of tweets and re-tweets about the subject appeared on Twitter. Journalists and bloggers in both the US and Canada picked up on the story and ran subsequent features.

From my perspective all of this publicity is great. It is crucial to raise awareness about the prevalence of workplace bullying. My consulting work has unfortunately afforded me numerous opportunities to witness the devastation that often results when women bully other women at work. Both careers and personal lives can be ruined when bullying is allowed to continue unchecked.

Why do women do it? For the same reason that men do – because they can. Women can only bully others at work if the workplace culture condones, encourages or turns a blind eye to disrespectful behaviour like bullying and harassment.

In my book Road to Respect: Path to Profit I feature 5 “employers of choice” who embrace respect as a core organizational value. I asked each of the individuals I spoke to from those companies whether or not they kept statistics on complaints of harassment and bullying.  Inevitably I heard a variation of this response from Val Duffey, HR Director at KPMG Canada. “What people are accountable for is respectful, tolerant, diverse behaviour, and we measure that in the environment. They (bullying and harassment) don’t happen because they are at odds with the culture. It just wouldn’t be tolerated.”

If a workplace culture promotes an attitude of cutthroat competition for opportunities that encourages divisiveness and mistrust among employees. If it focuses on bottom line at the expense of workplace relationships, that erodes collaboration and teamwork. If it fosters the traditional command and control managerial model, that facilitates workplace bullying.  Culture shapes behaviour, and behaviour affects workplace relationships, performance and profitability.

Bullying is by definition disrespectful behaviour. Whether it is women targeting women, or men targeting women, or women targeting men, bottom line is that it is destructive and costly behaviour that does not belong in any workplace. In a respectful workplace culture, all workplace practices and behaviours mirror the core value of respect. As a result, the behavioural norm for everyone, women and men alike, becomes one of respectful interactions, respectful communication, and respectful relationships. The result is a workplace community where being respectful is just “way it is around here”.

Sounds like the kind of community most people, regardless of gender, would want to be working in. What about you?