May 18th, 2009
Beware the office bully: she's baring her claws
by SARAH BOESVELD . The Globe and Mail May 18, 2009
She threw scissors across the room and barked at Cheryl to pick them up. She framed the young nurse for an egregious medical error involving a patient in their maternity ward. For an entire year – Cheryl’s first out of school – she verbally abused her in front of patients, who themselves feared this woman’s wrath.
“I actually had no confidence left, I thought I would have to try another job. On my last day of work, I didn’t even think I could take a blood pressure. [She] questioned everything I did.”
This senior nurse was Cheryl’s workplace bully and a recurring nightmare for the Calgarian, who did not want her last name used for fear of reprisal. While that was 36 years ago, the experience is seared in her mind as a reminder to refuse to be pushed around. But even recently, a colleague yelled at Cheryl in the hallway after she disagreed with how she was handling an issue.
“I said, ‘I don’t receive this. We have to agree to disagree. This is how I see it, this is how you see it.’ She ended the conversation, but she’s left me alone.”
Workplaces fraught with uncertainty are giving rise to office bullying. The antagonistic behaviour is becoming more commonplace, experts say, as the recession puts employees in survival mode – and contrary to macho stereotypes, some of the biggest workplace bullies are women.
A 2007 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an U.S. advocacy group, and polling company Zogby, found that female bullies target other women 71 per cent of the time.
Women make up 40 per cent of workplace bullies and 57 per cent of targets.
Just like Meryl Streep’s horrendous character in The Devil Wears Prada, the bullying woman often holds the power or at least some of it.
“Women are targeted because they’re easier targets [for female bullies],” says Erica Pinsky, a Vancouver consultant who works with organizations to form anti-bullying and harassment policies. “And they’re easier targets because they won’t stand up for themselves. You know ‘pick on someone your own size?’ It’s pick on someone your own sex.”
It’s mostly mid-level female managers or employees baring their fangs, says Nan Mooney, journalist and author of I Can’t Believe She Did That: Why Women Betray Other Women at Work.
“We can feel there’s a possibility we could lose our jobs if we cut another woman slack. We can also feel threatened by an ambitious, intelligent woman coming up from beneath us and want to knock her down and keep her in her place.”
That threat is fuelled by insecurity, which women tend to feel more than men do, Ms. Mooney adds. And with good reason – their jobs are often less secure.
“Women tend to be paid less, there are glass ceilings that are slightly porous, but still exist. … Women are dealing with issues of taking care of families, maternity leaves. Trying to balance all these things creates a great deal of tension,” she says.
But if gals are all facing the same career challenges, why lash out at another woman?
“I wish we could think more of that sensibility that we are in this together and it doesn’t necessarily help you to hurt other women,” Ms. Mooney says. “But a lot of times we’re in a position where we can take it out on other women, and we can’t take it out on our male boss or even a male underling who may become our boss.”
Women are more trusting and likely to share personal information at work, offering ammunition for a potential bully, she says.
Women have been socialized to play nice and many dodge conflict, Ms. Pinsky says.
“I hear from women, ‘I hate confrontation, I hate confrontation.’ The idea is any time you give people feedback, it’s confrontation and we need to change that,” she says. The change can come by developing a culture where the bullied victim can go multiple places for help – not just to the boss, who may be the bully.
But female bullies can be subtle and craftier than their male counterparts, says Marilyn Noble, who researches workplace bullying at the University of New Brunswick.
“Women tend to use relational aggression. It’s verbal, psychological, emotional bullying. People don’t recognize it – it’s covert, it’s harder to pin down and to prove,” she says.
There’s also a lot of reputation smearing, and female bullies often manipulate others into joining them, says Diane Rodgers, co-ordinator for the Bully Within, a B.C. group of professionals who have organized to fight workplace bullying. The consequences can be dire.
One woman Ms. Rodgers knows was hounded by a female colleague who would phone her up and berate her for not tying up loose ends before taking a sick leave for cancer treatments. Some female bullies pretend to be a woman’s friend only to spread lies that turn others against her. Some are driven out of their jobs and battle post-traumatic stress disorder.
To Cheryl, there’s just one catalyst for workplace shove-arounds.
“Stress. I think people are stressed. I think involved in it is all of our personality traits. Sometimes it’s an ego thing, like ‘I think I’m right,’ ” she says. But she also sees it getting better. Nurses like herself are vowing to guard young colleagues from the abuse with which she was initiated into the profession.
“I determined it would never happen. Nursing used to have a saying, ‘They eat their young,’ ” she says. “I say help them be the best they can be.”
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