Enterprise Software

Fighting the bully in the workplace


In my years interacting with members of TechRepublic, I heard quite a few stories about dysfunctional workplaces. I've been surprised by some of the stories about how abusive some bosses and co-workers can be. I see a lot of anecdotal evidence of this but there's not much statistical evidence out there. That's because workplace bullying often goes unreported when those on the receiving end do not belong to a protected minority group. So what's a person to do if he's the whipping post for an equal-opportunity workplace bully?

Maybe the Healthy Workplace Bill is a beginning. This is a state bill that "substitutes health-impairment for discrimination, and extends protection to all employees, working for either public or private employers, regardless of protected group status, who seek redress for being subjected to an abusive work environment."

Now if you're a cynical person, the first thing you think of when you hear about something like this is what a coup it will be for those in the legal profession. You can imagine how broadly "abuse" can be defined and the myriad ways some people could define "psychological damage." But the bill's advocates claim that the bullying employee is directly liable for the unlawful employment practice and that the employer (the one with the deep pockets) may be vicariously liable.

On the site bullbusters.com, I found the following summary which seeks to clarify what factors have to be in place for a bullying lawsuit to move forward:

  • Addresses only the most abusive, health-endangering circumstances
  • Does not mandate "feeling good" principles, health must be damaged!
  • No new government bureaucracy; costs the state nothing
  • Good employers with policies that honestly enforce them have nothing to fear
  • The small penalties will discourage attorneys from taking weak cases -- low chance of frivolous cases

Since 2003, 13 states have introduced the bill but none have passed it.

For more on the bill and workplace bullying in general, go to this site.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

21 comments
sarahevans33
sarahevans33

My sister worked for a company in Arizona called 95 and sunny and shared with me that the owners are the biggest setback of this company and are the cause of office gossip and horrible lack of respect for almost all of the employees except one which they also make clear to the other employees that she is their favorite. They give this one employee fancy vacations and pay raises that others don't receive. This warehouse employee runs around the office when the owner is gone and indicates to everyone that their job is on the line and that she herself made the recommendation to the owner that she should get rid of the other office employees and hire her daughter run the office single handed while she does the order pulling and shipping. This behavior was reported to the owner and she thought it was humorous and indicated that everyone is expendable. This is just one small example of some of the things I have heard coming from this business. This kind of behavior is extremely unprofessional and keeps employees from functioning at 100%. This should not be tolerated at any level. The moral in this company is very low due to the lack of respect for the employees which causes stress and a sense of hopelessness for all that work in this environment. The bad treatment of employees has also created a much higher than normal turn over rate and the loss of some very talented folks who were very sincere about the success of the company. In a couple of instances the owners would not tell and employee they were let go, they just kept telling them they didn't have any work for them at that time. There are also continuous snide and hurtful remarks made to employees on a daily basis by the owners and the owner???s pet employee. From a job security standpoint it is a very poor company to work for to say the least. The owners put no value at all in their employees and have a process that will demoralize the most competent worker to a point of depression. No matter how good of a job an employee does or how hard they work it is never good enough and this is the case with all employees that work for this company. Because this is a small company there really isn't much opportunity for advancement or growth. In all fairness however this company really does have some nice potential if the right folks with some people skills and business training could run it on a professional level without the childish antics.

tjohnson
tjohnson

I'm not really sure that legislation is the answer to work place bullying. In my research for my book, GUST - The "Tale" Wind of Office Politics, writings on my website, www.carpefactum.com, and contributions on www.office-politics.com, it seems that bullies are very determined creatures. They are also very "street smart" (just like they were in school) and know how to do their damage when the "eye of authority" is not on them. It will be up to individuals and organizations to fight bullies and create a culture where the behavior is not tolerated. It will be up to targets to begin documenting specific occurances and reporting them to HR. It will be up to HR and management to handle each effectively on a case-by-case basis. I think the enforcement of workplace bullying legislation (no matter how well intentioned and perceivably necessary) will be a nightmare to enforce.

kkessey
kkessey

After 15 years in IT, I've run into several similar situations. I've come to the conclusion that a small number people with a bullying/sociopathic/control-obsessed personality will exist in any population. The main difference that can be affected in a corporate setting is whether this behavior is tolerated (or even encouraged.) Where this behavior is tolerated or encouraged, not only do the ~5% (give or take) of people with a bulling personality act with impunity, but the bigger issue is that the majority of people will just try to "get out of the way" - in other words, enable the bully by not doing anything about it. They have no interest in doing what's right - as long as the bully isn't after them, everything is great. It is possible for companies to do something about this by creating an environment that intolerant to this behavior - I've seen it work, but is definitely the minority. You really have to target the 80% of the "get out of the way" people - make sure those people won't tolerate the bad behavior. If the tide turns against the abusers, they will be forced to keep their behavior in check. I don't think laws are the answer. HR is not there to help you, they are there to keep the company from being sued. Even in small companies where the culture is negative, HR will do nothing. They will pin issues a bully creates as "personality conflicts" and insist that the victim is the only one who reported it. HR and all management from the top down should be educated in creating the right culture, and they have to see it as good for the bottom line. If you work for a company where someone at the top is a sociopath, GET OUT. It flows downhill.

david.shane
david.shane

I was the victim of a decade of verbal and political abuse. Everytime I went to my manager the problem only seemed to get worse. Finally I decided that the collective management was not going to solve this problem. Indeed, my problem was not the most glaring problem either. My problem was, my problem. I goaded my antagonists into an email flame war in which they admitted all the rumors they had created about me. Then I pointed out that I had been trying to just come to work and do my job, but now those days were over. I told my manager, my director, HR and EAP that I would wage total war. When I was told that my approach was unnacceptable, I pointed out that my adversaries had been conducting their own version of total war without consequense. And I told everyone that since no one was able to reign them in I didn' believe that they wuold reign me in either. And that since my main antagonist ws a woman with a long documented history of this kind of behaviour, that there might be some legal issues if they treated me, a man, differently. Then I, my antagonists, my manager, one of his peers, HR, my union representitive, and HR got together in a room. I made my offer. If my antagonists came to me first, I would do my very best to listen. I would try to listen through what ever volume or content they felt they needed to communicate with me they felt they needed. It worked. This single act raised the level of respect I receive from everyone, except the EAP lady, that I work with. And my former antagonists are now my dedicated partners. The lesson learned is that your problem is ultimately yours alone. My antagonists felt victimized by something I had done. Although I'm still not really sure what that was. What the original issue was doesn't matter now. Our team is stronger and everyone on the team realized a benefit. And our leadership is only flesh and blood. While they may wear better quality pants, they put them on one leg at a time just like me. Asking someone else to fix your problem is almost always asking for more trouble than it worth. And the people that you are asking for this service will not respect you. Every company has a bully. Do you want someone to resolve your problems for you, or do you want to advance?

wrlang
wrlang

When I was very young I had an older subordinate that wouldn???t recognize my authority and actually tried to pick a fight every time I offered some advice about the job he was trying to do. My natural reaction to severe conflict is to smile. A bad thing, but that???s me. After a few months of fluffing it off it got to the point where he said he was going to pound me if I smiled at him again. I went to the boss with the threat and he laughed. I changed jobs. This bill doesn???t need to be passed because no self respecting person is going to wait to have a heart attack or an ulcer before they move on. My solution to bullying works. Get face to face with the person in a public setting and whisper the most antagonistic remarks you can think of with a smile until they get violent. Then have them arrested and sue the crap out of them. If they don???t get violent, they tend to leave you alone after that. If it???s your boss, change jobs and give HR and the CEO a written complaint on the way out. Not that HR would ever really do anything about it, but at least its on record so future employees can sue and no one can claim any more ignorance than the obvious ignorance they had by letting it happen. I???ve had bosses that others considered a bully. One called me stupid after I made a suggestion, so I looked him square in the eye and told him that my suggestion was no more stupid than anyone else???s including his. He said that my comment was insubordinate and I said how so? Being lazy and inarticulate, he dropped it and told me to get the H out of his office. Bullies are like snakes, they are usually just as afraid of you as you are of them. They just hiss much louder than others.

Hal1490
Hal1490

This is the biggest problem in America today. I now make my living from an online business and the stock market rather than "work" for companies that routinely allow, if not encourage bullying of various kinds...not to mention office politics etc. I was also victimized by women using sex, gossip or innuendo, and office politics to maneuver themselves into my job, despite my documented excellent reviews, performance and long hours. At Worldcom, my entire work team was harrassed by a neighboring group who disrepected us with extremely loud and unneccessary noise to which we complained about with nothing being done... Many employers don't really care about work, quality, ethics, etc, but only want to get as much power over your life as possible for the sick satisfaction it gives them....It is truly amazing that given the abusive working conditions endured by so many that there are not more workplace shootings....

gls334
gls334

Thanks for writing about this, a very important, but not very visible issue. It is important to note that most of the rest of the western industrialized world has some sort of recourse against workplace bullying. People in the US have a false sense of security in thinking that EO laws will protect them. Race, gender, disability, religion, etc. are all very narrowly defined, and if you do not fit into one of those protected categories you have no recourse. For example: If a boss or co-worker decides he/she doesn't like people with brown eyes, he/she can make that brown-eyed person's life a living hell at work with impunity. This would not be considered discrimination under current law, because brown eyes/brown-eyed people are not a protected category. Additionally, people should not expect HR to be a help. Studies indicate that in more than 50 percent of complaints by bullied targets, HR did nothing. And in more than 30 percent of cases HR either sided with or helped the bully. (per bullyinginstitute.org) Bullying is not a personality conflict. A simple 'bad boss' makes everyone miserable. A bully can be a loud intimidating type, but as often wants to go undetected so uses hidden insidious techniques to torpedo his/her target. Here are some additional links for reference in addition to the one pointed out in your article: "Are workplace bullies sabotaging your ability to compete?" http://gbr.pepperdine.edu/014/print_bullies.htm "Workplace bullying and mobbying reference page" http://webpages.charter.net/creeknews/bully "Why bully targets don't stand up for themselves" http://www.crazycolour.com/os/bully_05.shtml # # #

kimwilsonowen
kimwilsonowen

I think a bill sounds great but organizations are not going to bother to educate staff on vebal abuse and bullying and prevent/stop it unless there's financial incentive to do so or significant financial punishment if they don't. It's a shame someone would have to have a terrible health event before this would be stopped! People need to be educated and this needs to be prevented *before* productivity is lost and lives are impacted for the worse.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

In my early days as a lowly technician I worked for a lead tech/supervisor that was not happy with anything I did. No matter how hard I tried it wasn't good enough for him. When things slowed down I was delegated to spending half of my day doing shipping and receiving. pick ups and delivery. One afternoon I was directed by the production person to pick up and deliver some MG sets that we'd overhauled. I left around noon and did as directed. Upon my return at 230PM I was greeted by the lead tech in the parking lot, he rushed to the side of the truck, yanked open the door before I could do it myself. Yelling and waving his arms, he wanted to know where I'd been. His face was bright red and looked very threatening. I asked him to calm down and stop yekking before I started yelling too and we both said things that we'd regret later. I asked him if he'd checked with the production person and he just sputtered and continued his tirade. I then told him that I would talk with him later when he'd calmed down a bit. It took three days for his fuming to stop. Much later he'd transfered to another facility and proceeded to go off the deep end over a parking spot for his motorcycle. I then found out that he was an alcoholic and had been released for medical reasons. Abusive to the maximum, but not to the point of being a hazard to anyone but himself.

ltorrez1
ltorrez1

I used to work for a small company. The owner was very much involved in the day to day operations of the company, along with his VP. They were involved to the point that Manager's decision were constantly over-ridden and priorities changed at the owner's whim. The VP of this company is also known for forming cliques of her favorite people who can do no wrong and making life hell for people who either stand up to her or who prove her wrong. The owner of this company is known for having temper tantrums and screaming at people when the answers he gets are not the ones he wanted. Most of his managers just lie and tell him what he wants to hear to avoid his tantrums. This is not very good for morale. they will both praise you when you first start, but soon after, everyone they hire is the stupidest person on the planet and they badmouth everyone that leaves. They are also so paranoid that they think everyone they hire is out to steal from the company. They have a very high turn-over rate and cannot keep an IT dept staffed. They make IT decisions without consulting the IT department because their "IT staff is stupid". Consequently, they have made very bad decisions and, of course, blamed IT for "sabotaging" them. This is a great company that could do much better, but has steadily goen downhill because everyone, including the VP, lies to the owner. I am very glad to be out if there.

joestuffsda
joestuffsda

Then there's the aggressive tailgating driver with a mission to destroy anything in their path with a vehicle twice the normal size and ego to match.

ginger
ginger

I tend not to post but this one is a must. I worked for 6 years at a state IT position. Watched the bright and beautiful come and go for jobs in the private sector wishing them well on their journey. One day I woke up to realize I was the 'steady-reliable-she'll-stay late--meet some tech at 4:00am-workhorse lackey'. I tried to assert myself but didn't seem to get through to anyone (Union included) that my position had evolved into a unmangeable, undoable workload. I ended up a wreck, 3 months in Rehab for CD and alcohal and of course quitting my job. After 7 months of sitting in a Laz-eboy with a laptop I was approached by a consolidated K12 school district to manage their technology department. What a lifesaver! I base myself in the elementary campus, sounds of giggling kids and a straight forward job. Never ever again will I play with the "big boys/girls"...I almost lost myself to it. My old job breathed a massive sigh of relief when I left. But they have hired three people to cover the work I used to do. Yep...GET OUT...sound advice.

ginger
ginger

I tend not to post but this one is a must. I worked for 6 years at a state IT position. Watched the bright and beautiful come and go for jobs in the private sector wishing them well on their journey. One day I woke up to realize I was the 'steady-reliable-she'll-stay late--meet some tech at 4:00am-workhorse lackey'. I tried to assert myself but didn't seem to get through to anyone (Union included) that my position had evolved into a unmangeable, undoable workload. I ended up a wreck, 3 months in Rehab for CD and alcohal and of course quitting my job. After 7 months of sitting in a Laz-eboy with a laptop I was approached by a consolidated K12 school district to manage their technology department. What a lifesaver! I base myself in the elementary campus, sounds giggling kids and a straight forward job. Never ever again will I play with the "big boys/girls"...I almost lost myself to it. My old job was breathed a massive sigh of relief when I left. But they have hired three people to cover the work I used to do. Yep...GET OUT...sound advice.

joestuffsda
joestuffsda

School is where this bullying began. I was daily run home from school until one day I turned around and whipped the lead runner. The bullying stopped. Look at Cho. School is also where sexual harassment begins. Where there are no laws, the children act with impunity and their parents defend the little brats. I say import caning.

Media-Ted@Juno.com
Media-Ted@Juno.com

One of those links was for a story/transcript by Rush Limbaugh - a perfect example of a bully-broadcaster. It also fits because Limbaugh hails from Missouri, one of the worst places on the face of the world to try to find decent work, ... and then to do a good job! I'm not a "whiny - ... - liberal, but Limbaugh wants to label everything with which he disagrees as "liberal". I have seen some of the worst conditions in Missour that can be imagined, but they live above - under - around - and circumnavigating - the law or decency. Their motto, "Show me!" is only a half-truth; the hidden agenda should read: "Show me and I'll still disregard it." I have seen companies which had a woman keep them in the top catagory completely collapse when a man took over and decided to do things all his way - even breaking the law and defying contracts, to the extent that the same staff plummeted to a level below the number of teams working in that department. The problem(s) of bullying in Missouri - especially the rural areas approaches the kind of propoganda broadcast in the "Free-World" about the baddo communists. Don't get me wrong - I'm not a communist, nor do I think that life east of the Berlin Wall was particularly pleasant; I know people who escaped that area before the "Evil Empire" collapsed, and I understand their grief, so I'm not minimizing it, or making light of it in any way, but the same kind of pin-headed treatment of workers - especially those who have knowledge, experience, and quality initiave exists on this side of the "Iron Curtain", but - since it's in the good ole' USofA, it's glossed over because that's what people are expected to do with sacred shrines - even if they are empty, save for the bones and charred wreckage of once productive citizens. Limbaugh is wrong; his native state is riddled with Boss-Hogs, but he prefers to side with them and live in denial of reality, other than that which he sees in "The Way Things Ought To Be". There are far more bullies and lazy bosses than productive individuals left in this once "Free" nation. Bullying is now the accepted way of doing business in the US; Monopolies like M$, collapsing auto industries, Wal-Mart "Officials" side-stepping criminal responsibilities because of "Contracts" with "limited liability" clauses; hell, if it works for them - no wonder the EULA's are so tough to break. We have become a nation of "Contract established Master/Servants" instead of a Republic - which was a nation of laws which applied to all, not just those who couldn't afford to buy their own set of exemptions. AS for me, it's too late to educate an illiterate people; so we just must watch as what little left of the fabric of this society goes through the last jitters of changing from a vibrant society to a carcass of once important history. The meek may inherit the earth later, but today they're just gentle victims being tossed from one set of ignorant bullies to another; show me where there is any standard worth sharing and I'll seriously consider relocation.

detours
detours

"Additionally, people should not expect HR to be a help. Studies indicate that in more than 50 percent of complaints by bullied targets, HR did nothing. And in more than 30 percent of cases HR either sided with or helped the bully. (per bullyinginstitute.org)" It's the rare HR dept that takes the employee's side. On my first job out of college my lead was abusive. One Monday he came in and threatened me, describing how was going to "hunt me down, cut off my head and $&*% down my throat" for telling our boss the project results might be on his desk. (Apparently they were late) I took it to HR, but they bailed and left it with our manager (the one upset about the project). Somehow, he sided with the bully and said I was making a big deal out of nothing. How could I possibly believe the guy would literally do that to me. Then he handed us nerf balls to throw at each other. I just gave it back and said the guy would never talk that way to me again. Why they protect these guys I'll never know. I got off that project tho and refused to work with him again.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Bullying takes many forms. Way back just after the dot-com bust, I too lost my job and was out of work for nearly a year. Finally got one, but in a side-line working as an application administrator and statistical analyst for a hospital in their Quality department. 24 women and I was the sole man. Talk about a major disconnect. Here I was, newly retired ex-USAF, avid outdoorsman and hunter, working with no-longer-clinical nurses with their own clicks and shall we say, diametrically opposed worldviews. Someone in the department apparently tried their damnest to get me canned. Now I'm not into their social scene (baby showers, etc just wouldn't be prodent), so there's a certain amount of social isolation at work. Two idiotic complaints to HR, that were totally anonymous of course. I finally had to sit down with HR and got them to agree that the complaints were baseless as the statements would have been perfectly acceptable had they been made by a woman. I was still told that I wasn't being very sensitive to the situations, to which I replied that if they were making a distinction based on my gender, it still amounted to discrimination and that if it didn't stop then I'd take it to court. That must have gotten back to the instigator as I haven't had a problem since then.

danpat1_2000
danpat1_2000

Years ago I read I beautiful story in Forbes Magazine(called The Executive Stilleto) of an employee who was consistently bullied by his incompetent boss. The employee was a traveling salesman who, instead of acting normally, i.e., badmouthing this boss to the company executives he visited, he bragged about how wonderful, clever, and intelligent his boss was. Soon, one of these firms needed an executive and asked the salesman for his boss's telephone number, set up a follow-on interview and hired the guy into a top management job. Well, the salesman got his bosses job, and his old boss, true to form was fired after 6 months for incompetence. [I love the title of the article]

sgt_shultz
sgt_shultz

document every incident. date, time, what happened. even if you think it is borderline. for example, do you know one legal definition of harassment is to constantly interrupt. don't lord the documentation over anybody, just have it. when the time comes to bring up you have it, you'll know. do not discuss with co workers as much as you can avoid it, unless they witness then maybe. get counseling if the company pays for it, let the counselor know you are upset by the treatment and that you are attempting to keep sanity/perspective by keeping a diary about it and seeking counseling until you figure out what to do. spread the circle of involvement that way. in the states, it is illegal to create a hostile work environment. i think you may be surprised at the broad definition. you may find you have been putting up with harassment as defined by the law, not just borderline. what to do about it. the boss of the harasser is liable even if they are unaware of the harassment. the boss of the harasser is liable even if they are unaware of the harassment. once you make them aware they are legally bound to do something about it or risk a company lawsuit. if you have a real HR department (a increasing rarity imh experience, i'd tell them, let them do their professional thing. but in honesty, i think it is mostly a no-win situation. however, you outlasted that one and usually that is my strategy also. but if it is stressing you out a lot and affecting your work, don't take it. when this happens to me, i privately let the harasser know about my documentation. i privately let that i am feeling harassed and that it is illegal and affecting me negatively and i do not intent to let it continue. you may have an opportunity to make friend of harasser if you play it very carefully, the only way to really 'win' this one, imho. good luck.

DLBPDX
DLBPDX

Great sound advice, I am at the stage of your descibed situation where I am seriously shopping and researching what legal tactics I need to apply. I go to work and go through the motions of tolerating the discriminaton daily, I am making notes on my way home of incidents for proof to build a strong case. Searching and finding a new place to work is in the process, however I will file my case after I leave.

sgt_shultz
sgt_shultz

You brave person. I admire you. Perhaps you will blog about it and help us.