Bullies at Work

in Uncategorized
March 26th, 2013

Susan was working at her computer late on a Friday afternoon when Jim came in to her office looking angry.   He stood over Susan’s desk and leaned forward.   He asked in a loud voice: “Why did it take so long for you to finish writing that proposal?”  Susan, a small shy woman felt intimidated and defensive.  She responded to Jim that she had to research background information to  prepare a careful proposal and that had taken extra time.  Jim, a large man, interrupted, took off his glasses, opened his eyes wide and glared at her, criticizing how she had written the proposal.   Susan spoke up and reminded Jim that he was not her supervisor.  She asked Jim to leave her office.  Jim refused and continued to stand over her desk for several minutes before he finally left.  Susan was deeply shaken.   Her heart was beating quickly and she felt frightened, belittled and humiliated.   Over the weekend, she had difficulty sleeping and engaging with her family.  She was fearful of returning to work on Monday, and she had trouble concentrating.

Robert Sutton, PhD wrote about bullies in “More Trouble than They Are Worth” (Harvard Business Review of February 2004) and later expanded his theme into a book, The No Asshole Rule.  He lists common everyday behaviors, the Dirty Dozen, that bullies use:

The Dirty Dozen

  • Personal insults
  • Invading one’s personal territory
  • Uninvited physical contact
  • Threats and intimidation, verbal and non-verbal
  • “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insults
  • Withering email flames
  • Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  • Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  • Rude interruptions
  • Two-faced attacks
  • Dirty looks
  • Treating people as if they are invisible

Leah Harris PhD conducted a study of more than 175 four-year colleges to ask in-depth questions about workplace bullying in American higher education administration.  She found that 62% of respondents stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in American higher education.  This is 58 % higher than the rate reported by the general workforce.

Here are some of the types of bullies you might encounter at work:

Types of Bullies

  • Garden variety bullies are like Nancy.  They can be male or female.  They engage in aggressive, abusive or abrasive behaviors.  Either intentionally or unintentionally, they threaten, intimidate, insult, isolate or humiliate their targets.  They may use emotional intensity to manipulate others to insure that they accomplish their goals.
  • Queen Bees.  The Wall Street Journal of March 6, 2013 featured an article by Peggy Drexler, The Tyranny of the Queen Bee. She writes: ”This generation of queen bees is no less determined to secure their hard-won places as alpha females.  Far from nurturing the growth of younger female talent, they push aside possible competitors by chipping away at their self-confidence or undermining their professional standing.  It is a trend thick with irony: The very women who have complained for decades about unequal treatment now perpetuate many of the same problems by turning on their own.”   Drexler describes smart, high achieving women who are unkind to other women.  They can be verbally abusive, dismissive of new ideas, excluding women from meetings.  Their victims feel demoralized, humiliated, confused, angry and discouraged.
  • Kiss Up/Kick Down is another form of bullying at work.  These bullies are charming, ingratiating and hard working for their peers or superiors.   But they treat their subordinates with contempt and the behaviors listed above.
  • Good cop, bad cop.  An insidious form of bullying occurs when one person, often a boss, shares  his/her thoughts or beliefs about what’s wrong with the people or the workplace with a designated employee, who then picks up  the cues and may exert pressure on other employees, believing that is the desire of the boss.  Erin, a newer director, shared with Scott that she was frustrated at the slow pace of employees to adjust to change.  Scott wanted to help Erin and earn her good will.  He began to badger employees, insisting on deadlines for mutual projects and generally trying to enforce change.  Erin was the “good cop” while Scott was the “bad cop”.
  • Genius bully.  Walter Isaacson writes about Steve Jobs as a genius bully.   Because of his extraordinary talents in design and marketing, people tolerated him bullying waiters, colleagues and girlfriends with name calling, tantrums and disrespect.  He would find weak spots in people and exploit them, often publicly humiliating them.  In some organizations, including academia,  these brilliant  bullies seem to get away with their behavior.
  • Cyberbullies.  Technology has created more opportunities for bullying or cyberbullying.  Meek employees can become tyrants on emails and social media, involving bystanders with “reply all” or CC/BCC.  Rumors or disinformation about others may be circulated electronically.
  • Harrassers. Sexual harassment is defined as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, whether intentional or unintentional, that is not wanted.  If a bully targets someone because of their race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, military service, or because of marital, parental, or veteran status, they are subject to formal investigation and action through the Office of Equal Opportunity.
  • Victim Bullies. They are self-absorbed, self-pitying people who believe that they have been mistreated or exploited.  They believe their demands should be met because they feel that they have been victims.  Rarely empathic with the views and needs of others, they may insist on their agenda.  Their sense of being wronged justifies that their expectations should prevail.   As a result, people feel intimidated and bullied.

Effects on target

Targets like Susan experience stress-related emotional and physical symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Distracted, poor concentration
  • Loss of loyalty to organization
  • Hopelessness
  • Obsessional thinking about  the job
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lowered energy
  • Tearfulness
  • Increased blood pressure

Effects on Bystanders

How are bystanders and witnesses affected by bullying?  The ripple effect on people and organizations can be devastating, as bystanders are targets of bullies, too.  They lose trust in their colleagues.  Communication diminishes and creative avoidance increases.  People use emails and voice mails to avoid interacting with a bully.  Coalitions or cliques form.

Cost to organization

What is the business cost to an organization that has a bully?   Employees with bully or queen bee supervisors left their jobs more frequently, or had reduced job productivity and loyalty to their organizations.  For the organization, the cost of recruiting and training an employee is upwards of twice his salary, according to the Wall Street Journal.   High turnover damages morale and contributes to a negative organizational culture.   Certain employees in an organization spend inordinate amounts of time to deal with the financial, physical, emotional and legal issues generated by bullies.  These employees include the direct managers, HR professionals, EAPs, equal opportunity administrators, legal counsels, and senior executives.

What Can Individuals Do About Bullies?

If you believe that you are a target of a bully:

  • Talk to people including your family and friends, and consult with the university resources listed below.
  • Come up with a specific plan to talk to the bully.  Practice making your points.
  • Describe the behavior objectively.  Tell him/her how it affects you and ask him to stop, that the behavior is unacceptable.  As an example that Susan might say: “Jim, when you stand over me and take off your glasses to look at me, I feel intimidated.  I’d like you to stop that behavior.”
  • If you are fearful, you might ask someone else to be present.
  • You may want to tell your supervisor about your concerns.
  • Keep a journal of the bullying episodes with details of the behaviors.  Include dates and times.  Keep copies of emails, voice mails or other documents.
  • Avoid being alone with the bully if you can.
  • If the behavior occurs after you have told him that you are not comfortable, walk away from the situation.
  • If a number of people are aware of or have been the target of a bully, they should inform the manager.  If the manager does not respond, people should consult with the university resources listed.

What Can Organization Do About Bullies?

Leadership needs to invest and believe in creating a culture of respect for everyone.  Although many organizations have written policies, leaders need to have their behavior be consistent with their stated values.  Intolerance for bad behavior should be consistent.  When hiring, references should be consulted about a recruit’s specific behavior.  On the job, managers should be trained on how to identify and deal with bad behavior.  Many managers simply avoid a confrontation with a bully because it’s unpleasant.   Employees should receive regular feedback on all aspects of their performance, particularly teamwork.   Performance evaluations should not be the first time an employee hears that his behavior is not acceptable.  Teaching employees how to fight effectively with programs such as Difficult Conversations or Constructive Confrontations empowers them and may reduce the corrosive effects of ongoing bad behaviors.

If you believe you may be the target or victim of a bully, please contact Employee Relations at 617-414-1704 (BMC) or Faculty Staff Assistance Office at 617-353-5381 (BU).

    By Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW

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