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September 23, 2008

My Supervisor, My Bully

Being smarter and more able than your bully is dangerous at work. It can save your turkey sandwich in the 8th grade, but in the corporate world, the person who picks on you--especially if he or she is your supervisor--isn't meant to be beaten. Just the opposite of lessons learned as a child about standing up to a bully so his/her cowardice will emerge and he/she will back down, workplace bullies generally don't subside when you outsmart them. Rather, they become more malicious than ever, angry that maybe for the first time a person (often working under them though occasionally alongside) figured out their tricks. What's worse, the subject of the bullying usually has nowhere to turn for help because the reason the bully is a bully is because he/she has the confidence of his/her boss. Then too, office bullies are typically manipulative people, who have no qualm about lies or even crocodile tears to get their way.

So with laws throughout the country considered off and on about taming workplace bullies and protecting those who've angered them or threatened them by being better, I'm a little pessimistic. With no such laws actually enacted yet, companies that want to discourage bullying should come up with their own internal rules about it--beyond the conventional policies about maintaining a respectful workplace. First, take the person overseeing the bully's work out of the equation--as I mentioned, bullies are manipulators who have long since secured the loyalty of their bosses. Instead, train a few, or even one, of your human resources team to deal specifically with these situations, and publicize through one of the HR department's regular e-mail blasts or newsletters that such a person exists. If you don't do e-mail blasts or newsletters to keep workers apprised about HR, have the bully expert circulate through your companies work teams introducing him or herself and explaining what he/she does. Just knowing such a person exists--a person who isn't a friend or anyone open to bonding with the bully--may be enough to give the bully second thought. Next give the worker with the complaint the assurance of confidentiality, that absolutely nothing will be done if he/she just wants to talk it out, and if something does need to be done, don't arrange for a private meeting between supervisor, bully suspect, and alleged victim--or at least don't rely on that meeting as your sole source of information. If this seems like a problem that isn't going away, consult with other members of the work team (the victim's co-workers) about the issue, bringing it out into the open. Whatever you do, don't leave the person being accused of short comings, whether that's the supervisor-bully or the alleged victim--out of the meetings you have about the problem. Hard to believe,but I witnessed this very phenomenon, of a key, if not the key person, in the situation left out of the discussions with HR.

In addition to the importance of bringing the potential problem to light with the whole work team if necessary, I would begin looking for patterns and feedback about the possible supervisor-bully. If he/she is known for a "tough love" approach to work, and is involved with (either making accusations about or being cited as a potential source) of trouble for an employee, raise your eyebrows. Something may be suspicious there--could it be more than a disciplined approach to management such as just a downright mean streak?  Once--if your organization is unfortunate enough--the possible bully is promoted to head honcho, is there an exodus of employees working under him/her?  If so, something may be a little fishy. I once worked under a woman who got angry when I didn't look at her when she had on new outfits (and I suspect cried to our boss about it) and last I heard she's the new boss lady. So don't assume your organization is too smart to promote such people.

There are a final two worst things about bullies I noticed: they have the uncanny ability to paint themselves as the victim when that's the only way they can win, and they have the sad tendency to cling to their posts and the company that hired them years ago. Like the middle school ogre, they're insecure about their "talents" and doubt whether they'll get hired to anything comparable anywhere else. When you combine these two tendencies--the placing of themselves in the role of victim in order to win and their stubbornness about ever leaving, you have a problem on your hands that is hard to detect and probably isn't going away on its own.

I wish as grownups it was just about free lunches. I think I may have been tempted to reach an agreement with my bully in exchange for a pleasant workplace. My plan would be known as Turkey Sandwiches for Peace.

Do you think there are workplace bullies lurking in your offices and cubicles?  Do you offer employees working under or alongside them any defense if there are?


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Yukon Jack

I beat up all my workplace bullies.

Michael Spindelman

This is an important issue that truly has broader implications than the bully-bullied interaction. I personally have been the subject of this dynamic.

Beyond me and coworkers, they bullied the customer as well. Company reputation, growth and sustainability are all impacted by one thug of a person.

The rest of the organization suffers because of unnecessary energy spent to cover the fiasco left in the pathway of this person. Call it what you may, but it is outright abuse. It takes years to recover from the damage done by a bully.

Here is a blog post that goes into more detail: http://eventronics.com/blog/learning/has-your-esteem-been-abused/


Yukon, if only it were that simple.
Margery, it really depends on many factors. I've been employed in small, mid-size and large companies. Bullies thrive everywhere! In small companies and private companies, they usually are related to owners or senior managers. In mid-size companies, if the bully is profitable, they overlook it or promote him/her. In large companies, the "club" atmosphere takes over and the bully is viewed as a hero. As with anything, if the leadership of the company does not discourage bad behavior, it is the same as encouraging it. Therefore, other bullies spring up like weeds in a field and it becomes unmanageable, and usually quite costly. I hate to say it, but actions speak louder than words (printed or not). Company leaders have responsibility to act on the core beliefs that they print in employee handbooks and on their beloved corporate marketing materials. If they don't, then everything they say and do is just another sales gimmick or a means to passify.


I just took an online tutorial on the subject and thought it quite good. 'Bullying in the Workplace' on jedlet.com

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I've worked along side bullies, two women I sat next to used to often make fun of the size of my breasts, tried to public humiliate me, meanwhile my mum had just survived breast cancer. Some people enjoy an environment of drama, the best thing I found with those that use 'psychological' bullying is just to keep your inner peace, let it slide off. Don't expect someone with a mean bitter heart to act in a rational, civilised manner. I've always found that life has a funny way of humbling those people who treat people badly.

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