August 27th, 2012

It’s a Mistake to Trust the Bully’s Boss to Stop the Bullying

Before people who are bullied search the internet for “workplace bullying” at a time before know they are bullied or what to call it, they make two common mistakes. They report the misconduct to HR and they tell their bully’s boss. The sequence varies, but relief coming from one or both sources is rare.

2012 WBI research shows that HR is effective at stopping your bullying in only 1.9% of cases. Telling the bully’s boss is similarly ineffective, providing relief in a mere 3.3% of cases, though 71% of targets did try.

Let’s explore two factors that make asking for help from the bully’s boss futile.

Factor 1: The Bully-Boss Relationship

Think about who likely hired the bully — that manager. What do you think made the bully appealing to that person — the bully’s “style.” That style is aggressive, “results-driven,” direct or blunt, and intense. Though these qualities sound virtuous, when expressed with no limits, they can create a living hell for those subjected to irrelevant pressure. Regardless of how positively the bully framed her or his future contributions at the time of hire, those traits are all negatives for the selected targets of abuse.

An alternative is that the bully was already in place when a new manager came to the unit. Veteran bullies know how to ingratiate themselves with (kiss up to) people in authority so they will be seen in a positive light (think about a halo hovering over their heads). The new boss buys in completely and even lets the bully warn about the “troublemakers” on the team. Those workers would include you, the long-term target. So, you, the target, are in a one-down position from the start.

Perplexing Loyalty

It matters little if the boss or bully was hired first, if the relationship between the two has had time to grow, you can say nothing that will dissuade the boss to see the bully’s destructive impact on people and work itself. You are bringing bad news about someone considered indispensable. It has all been engineered deliberately by the bully. Cognitive science tells us that disconfirming information is ignored. The bully boss brain can only see the good in the bully. She or he does not know you as well and so trusts the bully to report on all workplace matters from the trenches.

Your account about their friend is not perceived as true. You are seen as “disgruntled,” “whining,” or “excuse making.” Furthermore, the bully has warned the boss about what people like you might say about them in the future. The bullies have inoculated her or him to discount any version of reality they have provided. You have been prejudged as a liar. Bosses are loyal to other bosses. Bullying evidence pales in comparison to that bond.

A director of the federal agency (formerly MMS) told us why he would not stop or even admonish a bully who ruled mercilessly over an entire division: “He is a great conversationalist and is a lunch buddy.” Exact quote. No kidding. You can’t make this up.

Too Fearful to Correct

To explain the bully’s boss fecklessness, consider that she or he might be afraid of the subordinate bully who works for them. That might mean actual physical fear. Most people loathe confrontation. It’s common to fear confronting, let alone disciplining, the bully. The bosses worry about predictable dramas by the bully each time she or he is caught in a lie or exposed as a workplace saboteur.

Anticipation of the emotional explosion is enough to keep a boss in check and inactive. Sometimes the outburst is coupled with threats of a lawsuit. Our experience is clear; employers fear lawsuits from bullies more than lawsuits launched by those hurt by the bullies.

Factor 2: Boss Doesn’t Know What To Do

Doing nothing based on relationships is political. Alternately, the bully’s boss may do nothing because he or she doesn’t know what action to take. With so little training for new managers and the poor quality of mentors, the lack of skill is not surprising.

When targets describe their dispute with their bully to the manager, the most frequent reply is: “Work it out between yourselves.” This is wrong-headed. Managers need to manage. They are ducking responsibility by trying to make victims solve the problem they neither deserved or invited.

Resolving bullying incidents is part of the job, albeit one of toughest parts. Bullying challenges unskilled managers. They misinterpret the situation as a war between two parties with equal power (if bullying is among coworkers) and mislabel it as mere conflict. Solutions to conflict are different than for bullying (which is a form of violence).

The bully’s bosses are afraid of emotion-charged interactions and worry about the messiness of it all. They use worst case thinking — that they will have to throw themselves physically between two combatants. Of course, that’s not the kind of intervention required. The altercations have passed by the time the bully’s boss learns about them. Despite the safety of a delayed and detached intervention, they still imagine the worst. It blocks action. The result is that nothing gets done. The target is frustrated.

Doing nothing is not taking a neutral position. When one party is abused and the other is the abuser, there is no acceptable middle ground. Doing nothing supports the abuser by showing indifference to the plight of the abused worker. It makes the boss an accomplice — whether by deliberate choice or sloppy inattention.

Tips for mangers who need to deal with workplace bullying issues are found in our DVD A Primer for Managers and in our book, The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011).


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This entry was posted on Monday, August 27th, 2012 at 12:11 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education, WBI Surveys & Studies. 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. SLH says:

    This article is great. I agree that getting the bully’s boss or HR to do anything about the bullying is rare. However, I do want to share something that I experienced early in my career that falls into the rare category. I was hired by a bully at a very large company and soon after, started to experience many problems with her. She found fault in everything I did and when I asked for constructive criticism to try to improve, she contradicted herself left and right…so much so I couldn’t figure out what she wanted or how to improve. I soon started feeling sick every day at work and she was even verbally abusive toward me at times. So I went to HR to talk about my situation. I had a folder in hand with all of her written contradictory instructions to prove my assertions. This helped, but what got me even further with the HR rep was that one of my nice coworkers (without my knowledge) had been to see the HR rep earlier the same day to express her concern about what she saw being done to me. Furthermore, my bully boss came the HR rep the very same day to complain about me and start the process of getting rid of me. This raised the HR rep’s suspicion that something wasn’t right. The HR rep told me to try and hang in there and keep documenting. Within a month, my boss was coming down even harder on me and I just couldn’t take it anymore. So the HR rep advised me to write a very detailed resignation letter and provide it to my bully boss’s boss before quitting. I did that and sat down with the boss’s boss and after reading my resignation letter, he tried to dissuade me from submitting it. He said it would be a blemish on my employment record to do so. So, I then went back to the HR rep and told her what boss’s boss said. And she advised me to submit the letter anyway. I did. And then I walked out of the company…never expecting to return. But I got a call a few days later from the HR rep who wanted me to interview for a different position in the company (with a very nice boss) and I got the job. I stayed at that job for four years and was very happy. But the icing on the cake is that within a couple months of taking my new position, my old bully boss got fired. I saw the HR rep in the hallway shortly thereafter and she pulled me aside to ask if I’d heard that bully boss got fired. She said “I guess your letter didn’t do YOU any damage, huh?” and then she smiled and gave me a wink. I’ll never forget the kindness and savvy of the HR rep and my co-worker who saw wrong being done and did the right thing by coming forward. True courage and compassion on both their parts.

  2. Lily says:

    Thank you for the training for managers!!! This is crucial and by providing this, they have no more excuses for harboring bullies. This was the missing link.
    Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

  3. Facebook Member says:

    I was bullied for nearly two years by my workplace manager who eventually put me off sick for five Months. Yes I reported it to what you might call “the bullies boss” and the response I got was “what do you want me to do about it” Two and a half years on and I am still suffering the effects. I have very low self esteem, zero confidence and walk around jumping at shadows. I was never able to returrn to my place of work and have now been forced to take a lower paid job whilst the bully and her side kick walked away scott free. It makes me so angry.

  4. TwilightZone says:

    This is so spot on it gives me chills.  Often bullies are related to, best buddies with, or having an affair with the boss.  The boss cannot be objective under these circumstances.  They are part of the problem and sometimes blatantly encourage the bullying.  Abuse is justified by making the targets out to be poor performers.  It’s a cover that works very well for sociopath bullies and bosses who get off on seeing people suffer.

  5. Maxpin1 says:


    Targets, victims and witnesses of bullying
    have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment)
    when subject to repeated and obvious acts of aggression, spreading malicious
    rumours, excluding someone socially or from certain projects, undermining or
    impeding a person’s work or opinions, insulting a person’s habits, attitudes,
    or private life and intruding upon a person’s privacy. Others include being
    rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting
    impossible deadlines. Although bullying is recognized as detrimental to
    occupational health, there is little political or corporate interest in
    stopping it.

    schoolyard bullying, the bullies are children, whose behaviour is controlled by
    the leaders, i.e. the school administration. In workplace bullying, however,
    the bullies are often the leaders themselves, i.e., the managers and
    supervisors. Therefore, reporting a bully to the HR dept, for example, may expose
    the target/victim to the risk of even more bullying, slower career advancement,
    or even termination, on the grounds of being a “troublemaker!”.

    Workplace bullying has severe consequences,
    including reduced effectiveness and high employee turnover. An employee who
    suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying can
    confront the bully, report the bully to the HR department or to the trade
    union, if any, or bring a claim of negligence and/or a personal injury claim
    against both the employer and the abusive employee as joint respondents in the
    claim. If the law does not persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying,
    the economic reality will persuade them. Training sessions can help when
    combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter
    the basic nature of some individuals, who may need counselling.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

  6. Foreverstrong223 says:

    I am a victim of boss bullying who recently resigned from a very well
    know hospital in NYC.. I resigned earlier this year 2012. Enough is
    enough. I’m now being offered reinstatement and wages. I don’t want to
    work for this company anymore and I didn’t accept the company’s
    monetary offers. I want to take my case to Supreme Court. Whether I
    win or lose I am willing to go all the way because a lot of people that
    may hear my case will hopefully come forward and speak about the abuse
    they have been dealing with on their jobs for years.

  7. juliekimwagner says:

    My husband, who has been bullied by his boss took the courage to report his boss to HR.  He used the words ‘harassment, bully, and discrimination’.  HR called his boss right away, and the boss called my husband to ‘retract everything he said’: threatening to fire him.  I think the direct approach worked, especially he had the sales records to back him up.  Bullies love to feel the power and seeing his victims appear powerless.  I’m glad he confronted the situation before looking for a new job.  Now, this is not to say that the boss may not try something else again.   My husband will be keeping detailed logs.

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