Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Workplace Bullies - They're Rampant and We Let Them Get Away With It

This blog is about marketing and I'm digressing from that topic to discuss something that affects all of us, particularly women who work.

Bullying among school kids is really hot right now - schools are scrambling to come up with rules and states and counties with laws that protect vulnerable students from bullies. The schools at this point really have no choice - some of these kids are committing suicide and having all sorts of other mental and developmental problems.

Yet, there is not a single law in this country that protects workers from bullying. If you can prove it's discrimination you may have a harassment case. Otherwise you're on your own.

What is bullying exactly? The data comes from an article in Forbes. In the U.S., where the practice is being studied, an estimated 37% of workers, or about 54 million people, have been bullied at the office, or repeatedly mistreated in a health-harming way, according to a 2007 Zogby International survey.

The percentage of bullying balloons to 49% of workers, 71.5 million people, when witnesses are included. What do bullies do? The whole point of workplace bullying is to make the employee feel powerless and bad about themselves. It's about power - and wanting more control.

Years ago when I was working at a leading business school there was a management professor who had been practically knighted as a guru on how to lead companies and manage employees. I knew her research assistant and although the professor was brilliant and getting quite famous, she was abusive to those who worked for her.

What does that mean exactly? Her research assistant was 22, smart, a really nice person and very competent. Yet everything she did was wrong, and the professor continually picked at her until her assistant confided in me. My advice to her was pretty simple - if you go to the administration they will listen and then ignore it. The only thing you can really do is get another job.

A couple of years later the New York Times ran a story about that professor. The story line? Management guru is awful manager. I was writing for the NYT then and I remember thinking I really wish I had written that story.

How do you know you're being bullied? The data shows its mostly men who bully women. Their affect on you is insidious. Bullies usually single out one person who they know is vulnerable. They are often well liked by others. But the person they've chosen to go after doesn't see that side of them. They see someone who makes them feel worthless, and even more, powerless to change their behavior.

What are signs of bullying:

Unwarranted or invalid criticism. You know that you are a competent, hardworking professional. The bully knows it too. But if they can take you down it builds them up. Watch out for this.

Blame without factual justification. "But I didn't do anything," is the rallying cry often of those who are bullied. It doesn't matter. The bully needs someone to blame and he or she has chosen you. Likely the bully did something that screwed up a job but it doesn't matter because bullies can never be wrong. It's your fault, never theirs.

Being treated differently than the rest of your work group. - You hear that others were invited to a cocktail party or a get together that you weren't invited too. Or people line-up outside your door to go to lunch and you can see them but are not invited. That's bullying and it makes you feel horrible.

Being sworn at. Someone who never curses in the workplace is suddenly cursing at you. Or who never loses her temper, lets loose on you. You go to a meeting with her and she's great with the clients - charming, smiling, thoughtful. Then you get out of the meeting and she starts cursing at you - out of earshot of course.

Being shouted at or being humiliated. - Bullies are yellers. The veins stick out in their neck. They attack you personally. They try to scream you down. Know that no matter how much you fight back you cannot win because the bully is wrong and they'll never acknowledge it.

Excessive monitoring. - Your boss asks you to do something. You've done it. Then he asks you 15 minutes later if you've done it. You don't answer right away. He does it himself making you look stupid in the process. You hand in something that you know is really good but she tells you it's garbage. I once had an editor who did that with a story I'd spent weeks writing - she said it was unpublishable. A co-worker read it and said it should have been a cover story.

What kinds of problems can bullying cause? Bullying can mess with your health both mentally and physically. If you were bullied as a child or by a spouse or school mate it can bring up all sorts of repressed issues that bring you back to that time. Here are some examples of what bullying can cause:

High stress; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Financial problems due to absence

Reduced self-esteem

Musculoskeletal problems


Sleep disturbances.

Increased depression/self-blame.

Digestive problems.

So if you are bullied, and need the job, what can you do? You can confront the bully but make sure you do it in front of a witness. You can get a new job. You can go get some counseling. You can report it to a superior if there is one.

But know this as you try to deal with the bully. They've done it before and they'll do it again. The school yard bully 20 or 30 years ago is that man or woman who is screaming at you today. A bully will never change. You're what matters. And as a co-worker once said to me, even if you and your family have to live on macaroni and cheese for the next year you're better off walking away than letting the bullying continue.

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