November 22nd, 2011

Workplace Bullies | Working Mother


Workplace Bullies
by Annie Finnigan, Working Mother, Dec, 2011 issue

Nasty bosses and mean co-workers can make work a living hell, and working moms are often targets. Here’s what employees and companies need to know about bullying-and how to fight it.

Stephanie Simpson thought she was pretty tough. She felt good about the way she coolly managed a number of hotheaded bosses, many of them elected officials. So when the now 33-year-old mom of two boys became executive assistant to the mayor of a small city north of Seattle, in 2006, she figured she’d handle this job as well as the others. At first it was just the occasional mean crack: In meetings, the mayor would sometimes shut her down with remarks like “Don’t worry about that, it’s above your pay grade” or “I don’t need your opinion.” And when she told him she was pregnant not long after being hired, he snipped, “You should’ve planned better.” When she returned from maternity leave the nasty pokes and pointed personal comments ratcheted up-to the point where co-workers started expressing concern. Her boss insidiously complimented her on her appearance, saying she “looked much better” now that she wasn’t pregnant, and made fun of her full-spectrum “happy light”-even after she explained that it had been prescribed by her doctor to help with postpartum depression. Yelling and swearing became part of his routine, as did calling her with ASAP demands on her lunch hour when she was breastfeeding her son.

The abuse escalated when Stephanie asked to be considered for a promotion, a move that seemed to enrage the mayor, who demanded to know why she wanted the job when she was “doing the mommy thing.” after she returned from her second maternity leave, he refused to acknowledge her presence, communicating with her only through other staffers. “He iced me out completely,” Stephanie says. “He stopped including me in meetings and told key people not to talk to me. He told them I had ‘baby brain.’ For the first time, I was afraid. I couldn’t do my job. I felt confused and crazy.”

Bullying isn’t only a schoolyard problem. It’s raging in the workplace as well: “Thirty-five percent of all adult American workers have directly experienced bullying-that’s 54 million people,” says Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute WBI in Bellingham, WA. Women are bullied more than men, and when it comes to working moms, the stat leaps. in a new Working Mother survey, 55 percent of our readers say they’ve been bullied at work. A tight economy and tough job market only fuel this problem, as supervisors become frantic and stressed about making their numbers and workers shy away from speaking out against abuse for fear of job loss. Bullies can be bosses, yes, but so too can co-workers or even direct reports. What distinguishes them is their pattern of repeated personal attacks, from verbal abuse and yelling to work sabotage see “Bullying Defined”. For those who experience it, workplace bullying can be worse than sexual harassment-a kind of “stealth” abuse that’s just as damaging to its victims but rarely addressed in corporate policy. What’s more, except in extreme cases, workplace bullying is perfectly legal.

Horrible Bosses

When Nicole Richter took a job as an executive assistant to the head of a family-owned Fort Worth bank-holding company in 2008, the HR staffer told her she should run the other way; her new boss was notorious for going through aides like Kleenex. Nicole figured she could handle the challenge—until she was in the thick of it. When the boss was in a bad mood, he’d prowl around picking on people, turning the office into a scene from The Devil Wears Prada, with employees emailing back and forth, “Watch out, he’s coming your way!” but mom of two Nicole, 29, was his primary target. “He’d be nice for a while, then flip, like Jekyll and Hyde,” she says. And when her boss was bad, he was very, very bad: screaming, throwing her work on the floor, saying she was stupid, accusing her of mistakes he’d made himself, criticizing her relentlessly while refusing to tell her how to make things right.

The abuse got worse, to the point of extreme, after Nicole and her boss moved to a new office isolated from the rest of the staff. One day, he asked her to get a particular book for him. She looked everywhere but could only find one with a similar title. When she offered it to him, he took it from her and shoved it into her stomach so hard that she stumbled backward. “I was absolutely stunned,” Nicole recounts. “I went to the HR person, who said she’d seen this kind of thing happen over and over for years.”

Nicole’s experience is classic. while workplace bullying is multidirectional—a top-down, bottom-up and peer-to-peer phenomenon—bosses are the perpetrators as much as 80 percent of the time. “Research shows that when you give people more power, they become more focused on their own needs and may act as if the rules don’t apply to them,” says Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, PhD, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss. That cluelessness and lack of empathy can devolve into bullying. and it’s not just men: Women make up 38 percent of workplace bullies, according to the WBI study—and they target other women 80 percent of the time. In our Working Mother survey, more than half of respondents say women are more likely to be the bully at work—and that working moms are the most likely targets among all women.

Mean Girls

Jeannie Flynn* is a teacher, one who teaches kids at her suburban Iowa middle school not to bully. “But bullying is ongoing in my own department,” she says, describing a clique of teachers who, like the mean girls in the movie, have used gossip and exclusionary tactics to create an in-group that leaves those who aren’t like them out in the cold. “We’re supposed to function as a team, all working together and sharing materials. But it doesn’t work like that,” says Jeannie. The reason for the clique’s power, she believes, comes down to money and social status in their small community, as well as time. Jeannie, 32, has a 2-year-old daughter and a husband who often travels for work, so she finds it harder to stay late or come into school on the weekends, as the clique members do. “I tell my students they don’t have to be somebody they’re not just to have friends,” she says, sadly. “But that’s something I’m struggling with myself.”

Women are thought to be better team players than men—but not if they’re bullies, says Namie. “Women bullies tend to direct their energies toward splitting up the work team, using divide-and-conquer games or pitting worker against worker. and they tend to be hypercritical.”

Sick Workplaces

“It was like an abusive marriage,” says Traci Carter of her previous job as a child protective services investigator in Florida. “Everybody I worked with felt beat up.” the intensity and sheer volume of the agency’s work turned supervisors into ineffective allies at best, and screaming, vicious-email-shooting monsters at worst. But Traci, 33, a single mom of one now living in New York City, managed to handle the situation—until she got pregnant. “Our days started at 8 a.m. and often didn’t end till 10 p.m. or later,” she explains. “We were on call, and sometimes the call came in the middle of the night. Once I was pregnant, the job became unbelievably difficult.” She asked to be reassigned to office work, but her supervisor told her there was nothing she could do. at seven months into her pregnancy, she found herself responding to emergency calls in terrible neighborhoods in the dead of night—alone—and more than once she was threatened. “I told my boss, but she was pregnant, too, and as stressed out as the rest of us, because she was getting beat up by her boss. All she’d say was ‘Work it out!’ ”

Bullies aren’t just individuals with a behavior problem, says Namie. “The workplace culture is the most important precipitating factor in bullying. decades of research show an individual’s free will is easily trumped by circumstances engineered by others. We react and respond to situations—but we forget how much they elicit our behavior. The work environment, with its rewards or negative sanctions, informs the way people act more often than staff personalities do.”

Sadly, most organizations have yet to address bullying directly. Only 3 percent have an anti-bullying policy in place and faithfully enforce it, says namie. organizational cultures that don’t discourage bullying, or that even tacitly encourage it (using harshness as a “motivational” tool, for instance), pay a steep price. Even mild forms of negative behavior, if they become a pattern, can lead to major consequences, according to Christine Pearson, PhD, and Christine Porath, PhD, authors of The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It. In their nine years of research, they found that about half of affected employees will cut back on work effort or time, a third will decrease quality, two thirds will waste work time worrying about the offender, and one in eight will quit the job. If, say, 1 percent of the employees at one large computer company were to experience uncivil behavior, the cost would run about $12 million a year.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011 at 2:47 pm and is filed under WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. Good article! Workplace bullying is an epidemic and the more information that is shared, the better chance of getting the grassroots movement fueled.

  2. Bulliedatworktoo says:

    Great article. I was bullied by a female insecure boss at a for profit adult foster care program in Mass. The workplace culture ignored my pleas for help. I am supporting the anti-bullying bill in the workplace and I am helping others also deal with the bullying in their workplace. Maybe if people named their bullies publicly, it may cause the companies to do something proactice. I have learned that I can make positive changes without holding a grudge.

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