September 26th, 2013
Forbes: How to Deal With a Bullying Boss
By Jacquelyn Smith
The prevalence of bullying on the playground, the Internet, in classrooms and dormitories is a serious problem in the U.S. right now–but children, teens and young adults aren’t the only ones using aggressive physical force, threats or coercion to intimidate and abuse their peers.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35% of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) has directly experienced bullying–or “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance”–while an additional 15% said they have witnessed bullying at work. Approximately 72% of those bullies are bosses.
“Bullying in the workplace is similar to the school playground in that people are being demeaned or exploited,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job. “But in the office, bullying is far more subversive and challenging to overcome, as these grown bullies are adept at finding non-assertive victims and staying under the radar.”
Andy Teach, author of From Graduation to Corporation, and host of the YouTube channel FromGradToCorp, says there is “a lot of bullying by bosses that goes on in the workplace—and the more years you work, the greater chance you have of encountering it.” He says these are probably the same people who bullied their classmates in the schoolyard. “They have a need to push people around to get their way and if no one stood up to them in school, then they have no reason to stop their bullying now in the business world.”
Taylor explains that there are different types of “bullying bosses.” On the more extreme end of the spectrum, there are those who throw tirades and intimidate employees continuously; some are even guilty of sexual harassment, she says. “Their behavior is nefarious enough to warrant termination and legal ramifications.” At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the covert bully; the much more rampant, fear-provoking boss, who acts out episodically. “On Monday he’s Mr. Nice Guy and on Tuesday he’s Attila the Hun. These bosses with bullying tendencies are masters at pushing you to the limit without giving you enough fodder to pursue legal action. For example, they may attempt to disguise their demeaning and discourteous behavior with levity, saying, ‘Oh, I was just joking,’ or ‘You’re too sensitive. You know you’re doing a great job.’”
Teach agrees that there are many ways in which a boss or supervisor can bully his or her staff. “It could be by yelling at them if the employee doesn’t please the boss. It could be by constantly threatening them; always telling the employee that their job is at stake. It could be by embarrassing them by constantly criticizing them in front of their co-workers. It could be by putting the employee in an uncomfortable position; giving them an order that puts the employee’s job or reputation in jeopardy. And sometimes bullying can be less obvious. The bullying boss may simply ignore the employee or not include them in meetings anymore.”
Gary Namie, PhD, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, says these are the 25 most common tactics adopted by bullies, according to targeted victims:
- Falsely accusing someone of “errors” not actually made.
- Staring, glaring, being nonverbally intimidating and clearly showing hostility.
- Discounting the person’s thoughts or feelings (“oh, that’s silly”) in meetings.
- Using the “silent treatment” to “ice out” and separate from others.
- Exhibiting presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group.
- Making up own rules on the fly that even she/he does not follow.
- Disregarding satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence.
- Harshly and constantly criticizing having a different ‘standard’ for the target.
- Starting, or failing to stop, destructive rumors or gossip about the person.
- Encouraging people to turn against the person being tormented.
- Singling out and isolating one person from co-workers, either socially or physically.
- Publicly displaying “gross,” undignified, but not illegal, behavior.
- Yelling, screaming, and throwing tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person.
- Stealing credit for work done by others.
- Abusing the evaluation process by lying about the person’s performance.
- Rebelling for failing to follow arbitrary commands.
- Using confidential information about a person to humiliate privately or publicly.
- Retaliating against the person after a complaint was filed.
- Making verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent or language, disability.
- Assigning undesirable work as punishment.
- Making undoable demands– workload, deadlines, duties — for person singled out.
- Launching a baseless campaign to oust the person.
- Encouraging the person to quit or transfer rather than to face more mistreatment.
- Sabotaging the person’s contribution to a team goal and reward.
- Ensuring failure of person’s project by not performing required tasks: signoffs, taking calls, working with collaborators.
“All of these forms of bullying are problematic,” says Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace. “Bullies suck the air out of offices, destroying camaraderie, robbing work of normal satisfactions, and demoting workers from bringing their best performance to the job. Bullies turn work into a fearful gauntlet to run each day. And there’s no question that working in unfair conditions will create a level of anxiety and stress, of powerlessness, that will infiltrate personal life.”
Taylor agrees. She says bullying behavior, whether it’s your boss or coworker, dampens enthusiasm and innovation. “Management by fear never works; respect rules the day for optimal results,” she says. “A bullying boss can also affect your personal life because the anxiety can affect your health. The conflict is that you’re torn between speaking up and potentially jeopardizing your job, and suffering in silence.”
An earlier online study by the Workplace Bullying Institute explored the impact of bullying on the targets’ health. Upon asking respondents to complete a 33-item symptoms checklist, WBI found that the top five health problems among those bullied at work are: anxiety (76%), loss of concentration (71%), disrupted sleep (71%), hypervigilance symptoms (60%), and stress headaches (55%).
“Workplace bullying by a boss can have many negative effects on an employee,” Teach adds. “It could severely impact the employee’s morale–so much so that the employee doesn’t even want to come in to work anymore. Bullying can bring on depression, self-doubt, and can lower an employee’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, these characteristics can carry over to an employee’s personal life, as well. If we’re depressed at work then there’s a good chance we’ll be depressed at home, too. It ‘s unfortunate that bullying bosses either don’t know or don’t care how much of a negative impact they have on their employees.”
Assuming you’re dealing with a bully of the “manageable variety”–with episodic flare-ups, versus a lawsuit-worthy bully–here’s how to manage up, according to Taylor and Teach:
Intervene early. Pay close attention to early warning signs that your usually mild-mannered boss is about to morph into a bully, Taylor says. “If you know your boss resorts to bullying under stress, try to minimize the stress factors. Has he had a bad day? Postpone unnecessary meetings until the coast is clear. Was he pushed around by his boss, or by a client? When in doubt, if you notice a warning sign, get out of the way. Just as you shouldn’t stick your face near the snout of a snarling dog, you should remove yourself from the path of a manic bully until things cool off.”
Set limits. Don’t be a martyr and work unreasonable hours or accept discourteous behavior. You won’t do yourself or your company any good, Taylor says. “Being able to say ‘no’ can be quite liberating, and might even earn you some respect from your bully boss.”
Speak to your co-workers. Is your boss only bullying you or do they do it to all of their employees? If you’re the only one being bullied, is it because you’re not doing your job properly or is it something personal? It may be simply that your boss doesn’t like you. Ask your co-workers for advice on how to handle the situation, Teach suggests.
Use positive reinforcement. When your bullying boss treats you with respect, thank her for her kindness, Taylor says. “Tell her how she inspires you to work hard whenever she’s positive and polite.” Become a role model of good citizenship yourself, displaying unwavering courtesy to your boss. If you have to, overdo it to send the message. “Never fight fire with fire; don’t act like a bully in response to bullying.”
Be a good role model. Setting a good example of the demeanor you want your boss to emulate can help. “Praising another’s work, giving credit and remaining calm when your boss can’t, will help your boss better see the light,” Taylor says.
Speak to your Human Resources department. When all else fails, speak to your HR department, Teach says. “Keep in mind that while they will listen to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take action or will be on your side. If your boss gets results, HR may overlook their bullying tactics. I’ve personally seen an example of several people leaving a department over time because of a bullying supervisor until that supervisor was finally fired. Where was HR during this mass exodus? I do believe that HR departments need to be much more proactive in preventing workplace bullying.”
If your boss is abusive, garner support. If your boss truly is out-of-control, bordering on abusive, seek assistance from coworkers, other managers and/or outside council. “You need support through this process,” Taylor explains. “If confronting your bully boss directly is not an option, go to a higher-level manager or a human resources manager and present your concerns. Be honest, and be prepared to give examples of the abusive, bullying behavior. It usually takes more than one person to topple a bully but, with outside support, you have a chance.” If all else fails and the job is simply untenable, then it’s time to visit your favorite job board and start networking.
Namie says confronting the boss is “rarely effective and ill-advised.” In early 2012, WBI asked 1,598 individuals who were personally familiar with workplace bullying what strategies they adopted to get their bullying to stop, and whether those actions were effective. Here’s what they said:
- About 38% of bullied employees essentially did nothing. In other words, he or she let time pass, hoping matters would improve on their own. Effectiveness of doing nothing: 3.25%
- About 70% of employees directly confronted the perpetrator. Effectiveness of confronting: 3.57%
- About 71% of bullied employees asked the perpetrator’s boss to intervene and stop it. Effectiveness of seeking support from bully’s boss: 3.26%
- About 74% told senior management/owner, expecting support.
Effectiveness of seeking support from senior management/owners: 3.69%
- About 60% of those in unions asked their union to intervene and stop it.
- About 43% of employees filed a formal complaint with HR alleging a policy violation. Effectiveness of telling HR: 4.7%
- About 19% filed a complaint with an external state or federal agency. Effectiveness of filing a complaint with EEOC, etc.: 11.9%
- About 34% of bullied workers tried to find an attorney to file a lawsuit.
Effectiveness of finding an attorney: 11.2%
- About 9%, or 379 respondents, did file a lawsuit. Effectiveness of filing a lawsuit: 16.4%
“Employers are responsible for all work conditions and the assignment of workers to supervisors,” Namie says. “So, employers can stop workplace bullying if they wanted to. No laws yet compel action or policies, so all employer actions would be voluntary.” About 68% of executives think workplace bullying is a serious problem—but few organizations (5.5%) are doing anything about it.
The bottom line is that if you’re being bullied at work, and your employer isn’t doing anything about it, “you owe it to yourself to do what you can to try and stop it,” Teach adds. “If you fail, you should give yourself credit for at least trying to improve the situation. At that point, you have the choice to stay or leave. You should make the decision that’s best for you.”
Taylor agrees. She says “your best option is to decide whether you want to manage up with your bully boss, or bow out.” What is your tolerance level, and what are the pros and cons of the job overall? “You must weigh the level of discomfort with your ability to be assertive, and also take a hard look at the big picture.”
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