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Bully Management

Standing Tall When You Get Pushed Around

Dear Nan,
There is a bully in my department and I am at a loss how to handle her. She criticizes me for no reason - goes out of her way to embarrass or discredit me in front of other employees and seizes every opportunity to make my life miserable. She has even gone so far as to tell outright lies about me. I've tried hard not to be hypersensitive but, try as I might, I feel like a 4th-grader again on the playground. In addition, she rebuffs all my efforts to become friends. She is either just plain jealous of me, wants my job (which she is unqualified for), or for some reason just wants me gone. I hesitate to mention it to my boss because (and I wouldn't blame him) he'd probably tell me to grow up and ignore her. I love my position, my boss, and my responsibilities, but I don't even want to go to work anymore. What (short of resigning) can I do?

Virginia Boyd CPS/cap, IAAP South Carolina Division President-Elect hits the nail on the head: “No one has the right to harass a person at work. It’s against the law!”

And, harassment this is. Not only does above behavior fall into the hostile working environment of sexual harassment guidelines, but, if unchecked, such behavior could even escalate into the danger of workplace violence.

Workplace bullying is a major factor to be dealt with in today’s quest for an ethical workplace. Recent statistics and figures indicate that ignoring workplace bullying in today’s world of business is not only bad management but, a potential costly proposition besides.

In the “olden days” of the explosive boss (Mr. Dithers), when an employee complained about such bullying, the response was often: “Oh, get over it!” or, worse yet “What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?” or, the classic putdown: “Don’t you have a sense of humor?”

Not today! Management is now recognizing that the above responses are not only humiliating, debilitating and demoralizing to the employee, but, also, potentially destructive to a company’s productivity, stability and profitability.

I define bullying as – deliberate and repeated hostile actions toward others in the workplace. The costs of ignoring this behavior are increasing at an alarming rate. Joel Neuman, Professor of Management and Organizational Behavior at the University of New York is researching workplace bullying at the Veterans Administration hospitals. He estimates the cost to the VA alone is in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Defining Harassment

Companies today have eliminated the word “sexual” from their harassment policies. Certainly, one can be sexually harassed. However, one can also be physically, verbally and emotionally harassed as well. And, the extremes of any of these behaviors fall into the “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment” portion of a potential lawsuit.

Physical harassment is fairly easy to define (e.g. the flower pot University of Indiana former basketball coach, Bobby Knight, hurled at his Assistant). So, too, is verbal harassment (yelling, excessive criticism, personal insults or profanity). Emotional harassment is a little more difficult to define, however. It is a constant, pervasive action, best described as intentional emotional distress (“Did you do that again, Susan?”) resulting in a lowering of one’s self-esteem.

Interestingly enough, most bullying occurs between employees on about the same level of responsibility within their firms. Bullying can feel more intense however, when the bully has power. While bullying behavior among coworkers is more frequent, the same behaviors from bosses hurt more because bosses control access to resources that people need to maintain their jobs and careers. No matter how it is leveled, workplace bullying is destructive because it spreads into a wider picture of stress.

Why do people bully? Employees usually bully others because they believe they are utilizing their power. Albeit this is a misplaced and harmful use of power, bullies actually believe their behavior is simply wielding them powerful.

Interestingly enough, the reverse of what the bully believes will happen actually occurs: Anyone who observes such bullying loses all respect for the bully and their sympathies immediately lean toward the victim instead.

The sports world gets this one right. In contact sports, per example, if you bully a hockey player, you get tossed into the penalty box. And, if you bully a basketball player, you get fouled. Even more importantly, all the other players band together and retaliate by supporting the bullied teammate.

But, this is not the sports courts. This is the workplace. So, how do employees combat workplace bullying? First, let’s examine.

The consequences of ignoring bullying behavior in a company
(None of which are good):

  • The company delivers a strong message that its management doesn’t really care about their employees.
  • Employees begin to believe management actually condones such behavior.
  • Employee morale is reduced to zero.
  • Employees feel intimidated and, in some cases, threatened and fearful—resulting in a negative environment.
  • Productivity is reduced dramatically because employees are confused about what is expected of them and stressed to distraction.
  • Stability is affected as employee turnover is increased.
  • Retaliation can be a huge consequence. Employees who feel powerless may secretly sabotage the bully or the bully’s effectiveness on the job and/or they may even sabotage the employer who allows the situation to exist or persist.
  • Employees may file a hostile environment lawsuit against the employer.

What can the bullied employee do?

First and foremost, remember, you HAVE to take care of yourself. You must take action. Tami Dickinson CPS, Executive Assistant, Sodexho Laundry Services, Marietta, GA writes: “In situations where a co-worker is attempting to discredit, embarrass and/or spread destructive lies about you, then it’s no longer an issue of ‘hypersensitivity’; it means your job, your reputation and your career are now on the line.” Once you have made the decision to rectify the situation, document what is said and done, including dates and circumstances, and keep this journal long enough to make your point. Diane Johnson-Hung, Administrative Assistant, WEA Trust, Madison, WI adds: “Make sure your documentation is written with facts (what was said, what was done, how you came to hear about the lies, etc., and how you felt afterward).”

Then, consider these actions:

Confront Ms. Bully Directly

The worst reaction you can give is to start bullying back. The bully can handle toughness – it’s her forte.
Conversely, the bully can not understand or handle gentleness. Sometimes, you can totally disarm the bully by a calm response. Anonymous (for obvious reasons) writes that she was warned that her new boss had a reputation of going into tantrums every now and then and would “carry on disgracefully.” The first time it happened on her watch, however, she just stood calmly before him and watched his “carrying ons”. Then, she asked quietly, “Are you through?” She did it so masterfully – he was totally disarmed and actually felt quite foolish – and, he has never “performed such antics since”. (Do you think possibly she had kids of her own?)

As in combating all harassing behaviors, it sometimes works to put their behavior back into their lap. Pick a good time (not a stressful time), sit down with the bully and ask this question: “Do you know how what you said/did yesterday made me feel?” (i.e. you are afraid, nervous, jumpy, can’t perform well). Karen L. Bianchino CPS, 3M Company, Irvine, CA writes: Maybe by simply confronting the bully with what she is doing and how it makes you feel will make her stop.” Remember: the bully thinks her behavior is getting good results. You are reminding her this is not the case.

You can use the words “job affecting” and describe how her behavior is not only having a negative effect on you but, also, on everyone else who has observed it.

Go to your boss

This is your call and yours alone. Only you know if your boss would want to be included in such a matter or want you to solve it yourself. In above case, Gina Staley, Administrative Assistant, Airbus, Wichita, KS writes: “Your boss should be made aware of what Ms. Bully is doing because she is spreading lies about you and you need to protect your reputation.”

Go to the Human Resource Department

If you do not get a good reception with the bully herself, you can always go to appropriate personnel in your Human Resources Department (with your documentation) and ask them to intercede on your behalf. HR professionals have protocols for handling harassment situations. Sandy Ratke CAP, University of Maryland, College Park, MD adds: “The bully’s treatment of this employee is straight out of a harassment manual. Since she has already tried all the regular avenues of dealing with this problem, she has no other recourse than to go directly to her human resource department to file a complaint.” The company deserves a chance to solve the problem with you. Remember, you are doing your management a favor by possibly heading off a costly lawsuit.

The HR associate may suggest (if not, you can suggest) a meeting with the bully. Tina Bailey, Secretary, The Dean Company, Princeton, WV writes that, at that meeting, “you can tell the bully you wish to clarify some misunderstandings that you feel have developed between the two of you. Direct your questions and conversation to the bully, explaining why you have asked for the meeting and that you feel perhaps there is a conflict in your working relationship. Be sincere in explaining it is not your intention to have problems working together and that you hope any conflicts can be resolved and you will be able to overcome issues and work well together in the future.” Then, she adds some wise words: “Give the bully a chance to talk!”

Last resort

The last resort, of course, is to quit your job and sue your company via the EEOC. However, be realistic. This action will be costly, time consuming and, in the long run, perhaps not worth the anxiety this effort may bring.

Also, there is nothing that burns my biscuits more than someone who leaves a good job, wonderful boss, longevity, benefits, etc. because some other employee is behaving unprofessionally. Lois Wade, Legal Secretary, Bowditch & Dewey, LLP, Worcester, MA adds: “No bully should have the power to force a co-worker to leave his/her job or to create a hostile work environment.”

Remember: You Are In Control

Sadly, verbal and emotional harassment are among the few dilemmas that don’t respond well to logic, appeal to fairness or even stiff opposition. Someone who behaves like a bully has serious, deep-seated anger and dysfunctional behavior that only sessions with a behavioral psychologist over a long period of time can possibly alleviate his problem.

Please keep in mind, however, that what is certain is that YOU cannot be her therapist and aren’t equipped to tackle this. Beating your head against the wall hoping to “cure” the bully, or searching for the “silver bullet” solution that will transform the bully who is “impersonating” a professional employee into an employee who deserves your respect is usually futile.

So, be realistic in your assessment and evaluate your course of action. Please keep in mind the bully’s angry, irrational, immature behavior is only a mask protecting his insurmountable insecurities and this has nothing to do with you or your job performance whatsoever. Take heed from advice offered to support groups for families of alcoholics when they are told: “Always remember – their behavior is not YOUR fault.”

Remember, it is never our circumstances that control our lives but, instead, what we do about them. None of us will ever have control over what other people do. What we DO have control over, however, is how we REACT to what other people do. Katie (anonymous) in Indiana confirms: “I was a victim of workplace bullying and my experience taught me I could not do anything about the bully’s attitude; I could only change mine and the way I reacted to her.”

Barbara Smith, CPS, Executive Administrator, Diversified Brands, Cleveland, OH writes: “I know from experience there are hundreds of personalities in an office environment and some may click and others may clack; but, the bottom line is you have to get along in an adult and professional manner. What this bully is doing sounds like a child in school, which has no place in business.”

You may not be best buds with the people you work with; in fact, you may not even LIKE them. But you deserve and can expect to be treated with common decency and respect while you are on the job. And, it is your responsibility and the company’s responsibility to maintain this atmosphere of respect in today’s ethical workplace. Daisy Baker, Bank One/Corporate Security, Chicago, IL sums it up: You are entitled to a work environment that is non-threatening to you emotionally or physically. Stand up for your rights and do not allow someone else to hold you a prisoner of fear.”

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars