Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bullying in the Workplace

If you think that bullying is just something that kids do, think again. Bullying occurs quite frequently in the workplace and unlike school bullying, there is often no evidence to back your claims up and no higher authority to turn to for help.

The targets for workplace bullying are often different to those of schoolyard bullying although many people, particularly "natural targets" such as aspies, will find themselves victims in both scenarios.

The Corporate Hierarchy
If you're the boss at work, you probably don't need to worry about being bullied but if you notice an unusually high staff turnover or if you notice that there are a lot of complaints both by and about specific individuals, you should probably investigate (quietly).

CEOs themselves generally aren't bullies because if they antagonise all of their staff, the company profits will suffer.

Bullies aren't usually to be found in the lower levels of the corporate hierarchy either. Unlike schoolyard bullies, workplace bullies generally don't use greater size or strength advantages (except perhaps in blue-collar roles). Instead, their machinations are primarily political. They can't bring a lot of pressure to bear from the bottom of the organisation, so they're more likely to "suck up" to bosses at this level until they get to a position of relative power.

What can be found in the lower levels of the organisation however are the primary targets of workplace bullying.

Middle and upper management tends to be the natural home of the workplace bully and the greater the control over staff, the better. Bullies tend to be a natural fit in people-centric roles such as human resources, project and office management.

The Tricks of the Trade
Workplace bullying tends to take the following forms;
  • Appearance and Manner
    Picking on someone because of their dress, jewelery, tattoos, hairstyle or their general manner, such as telephone or meeting conduct. This tends to be an area dominated by female bullies and the aim of the bully is to make the victim feel insecure about themselves and perhaps, to force more conservative trends. This helps older female bullies to retain attention which may otherwise be lost to younger staff.

  • Ethical Questions
    This style of bullying calls the ethics of the victim into question. It's usually targeted on a perceived "weak point" and may question religious beliefs, sexual preferences, business practices, decisions and even parenting abilities.

    Bullies attacking someone's ethics will attempt to make their victims feel uneasy (or even resign) by loudly dropping hints that their ethics are somehow wrong. For example; they may suggest in general discussion, that mothers who return to work while their kids are still very young are the worst kind of people. They may pretend to be totally oblivious to the fact that their words are hurting a mother in the office. These parents have enough self-doubt about leaving their babies in the care of strangers without being called out on it by bullies.

  • Attacks on Knowledge
    Many of the most common forms of workplace bullying take place around the idea of knowledge. Workers are accused of being unskilled or otherwise unable to perform their duties. The bully "accidentally" withholds or delays key knowledge, such as reports, emails or system passwords.

    In one case from my past, we had a female IT worker who wasn't particularly well accepted by her peers. A male colleague kept reducing her access rights to the point where she would frequently find herself locked out of systems and unable to do her job. Since she was supposed to be an IT support person, this bullying made her seem incompetent.

    Bullies who attempt to use knowledge as a weapon will often try to make it seem that the office cannot function without them. They will set things up to fail when they are not around or will redirect phones and email to ensure that they are the only ones who get a chance to operate certain systems. They will complain bitterly about other people not giving them training, documentation or access while resisting efforts to allow others to be trained.

    If someone does any part of their job during an absence, they will complain bitterly about the quality of work - even if there was nothing wrong with it - as soon as they return.

  • Credit Takers
    Credit taking bullies are those who attempt to take credit for the work of others while complaining bitterly that they "had to do all of the work themselves". These sorts of bullies will take issue with any reports you submit to upper management without having gone through them first. They will exclude their victims from meetings and will present their victim's documents as their own.

Dealing with Workplace Bullying
There's not a lot you can do about workplace bullying, particularly if the bully either has the CEO's ear or works in the human resources department. In both of these cases, the bully may have high levels of access to your file and will attempt to suppress complaints about themselves. If anything, you'll simply draw attention to yourself.

If the bullying is not impacting you too greatly, then you can continue working and just keep copious, unpublished notes about issues. Save the notes for a time when they are really needed.

If, on the other hand, the bullying is affecting you, then start looking for another job. It's worthwhile reporting it but there's little chance you can win.

A Good Read
While not simply on workplace bullying, the following book is a very interesting read on the subject.

Working with Monsters: How to Identify and Protect Yourself from the Workplace Psychopath
by John Clarke
Published by: Random House Australia
ISBN-13: 9781740511544
Year Published: 2005

Other Posts in this Series


giuliocc said...

I have witnessed someone being bullied firsthand. I was doing a few days consulting and was caught completely off guard by a senior director paying out on this IT manager. I regret not stepping and "setting the record straight", but I barely knew the place and the environment. But my observation was this guy saw the IT manager as an easy target and would rip into him even when it wasn't his fault.

In another case it was my wife getting pushed around by her team leader a few years ago. It went to HR and they white washed it with the blessing of the department head. I was livid and ready to go all "Robert De Niro" on the a$$es.

The common themes are: bullies are generally incompetent and attack the one with least bite. Frankly in the work place, bullies are easy targets once they step out of bounds. You can generally counter-humiliate them if you provide a controlled response and keep it to the point and if you can back it up with witnesses and evidence the company is generally wide open for legal prosecution.

If you're in a job where you suffer from bullying I would strongly recommend getting out of the toxic environment and you'd be surprised how it will improve your quality of life.

Tammy Lou said...

Luckily most of the places that I have worked have been positive and supportive but there are two particular cases where I felt like I may have been bullying. In one case I was confronted by a group of superiors (the part about manner and appearance made me laugh because I was 19 at the time and they were all morbidly obese older ladies) and asked about my diagnosis and assumed deficits after I had mentioned it to a gossipy coworker during training. They made a lot of baseless judgements about my abilities and said that we would need to meet regularly to discuss all the accommodations that I must need. It was incredibly humiliating, when it happened I was completely shocked that people who work in the mental health care industry (providing services for individuals on the spectrum!) could be so insensitive. On our next (and last meeting) I informed them of their legal breech and it was never mentioned again. I am a motivated, diligent worker and take a lot of pride in being competent in my job (someone used a game I created in their masters thesis) so it was extremely difficult to have my capability questioned right off the bat because of my diagnosis. Since then I've been more reluctant to share my diagnosis with people. Although it happened years ago the event still stands out in my memory. Several other people I know were accosted in similarly intrusive ways by this group and the organization has since been disbanded.

In the second case, I quit the job after a day and a half because the atmosphere was so disgruntled and hostile. My new coworkers foisted a lot of their work onto me during my first shadow day (when the supervisor gave specific instructions that I was not yet qualified to do anything and should only be shadowing). At one point they left me on my own and all went to watch a movie. There was a safety emergency and no one responded to my calls for help.

As a kid I had a few clashes with bullies but never got them in trouble/couldn't do anything about it/was worried about causing a commotion. Now I cannot tolerate it, particularly from people in authority who you should be able to expect more from. Work is a HUGE part of life satisfaction so I think it is important to assert your rights then, if that is not possible/productive, start looking for a better fit. I know this isn't a time where jobs are plentiful so the idea of leaving a negative work environment could be daunting (a fact some workplace bullies may be knowingly advantage of!).

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Also, don't forget that workplace sexual harassment is a variety of workplace bullying too.

Anonymous said...

I am a very high functioning individual with Asperger's (per the specialists). Bullying is common for me at work as I am extremely motivated and extremely focused. Bullying is often in the form of a supervisor or manager. For all practical purposes the individual of authority will put a bounty on my head. And in all cases I report the situation to HR and fight until I can fight no more. Frankly finding another job is difficult enough with extraordinary relationships at the current job so advice to simply find another job is not helpful. The current job involves a bully and after two years of applying at the company and 1.5 years of working to build a network at the company for advancement the investment is extraordinary. Examples of the bullying include low ratings, very subjective examples of issues with coworkers related to my personality characteristics, the lowest rating on a performance review with zero objective measurements, etc... I filed via ADA / Asperger's and now finally have the ear of HR and management. In the end the desired result a new better fit position and a new better fit manager.

Anonymous said...

I am an aspie, and many years ago was the office group's "I.T. focal" in a large corporation.

A large part of the work done by "my" bully at the time involved taking data from a computer, and manually running sub-calculations and preparing and distributing paper reports. I was a stupid job.

He went on vacation, and the supervisor asked me to do it. Did I say it was a stupid job?

Instead, I spent about four hours with an obsolete computer we were going to send to surplus, and automated the entire task.

Over the next two weeks, I added improvements every day, and by the time he came back, the entire job was 100% automated, done Monday morning instead of Thursday, no more paper.

I smiled as I heard him shouting at the supervisor for "allowing" me to do that.

Shortly thereafter, I found an internal transfer position.

The supervisor wanted me to say saying "They" are winning if I leave.

I replied that if he knew it was going on, his job would have been to stop it.

Miguel Palacio said...

The department of Human Resources would like the employee to think that they are the authority one can turn to in the event of bullying, but, in reality, they are there more for their own interests in not being sued and may opt for finding ways to remove the person being offended in some cases.

LookBeyondTheObvious said...

I suffered 5 years of bullying by my manager. It took the form of withholding information, belittling my work because frankly it was far superior to his. Finding the tiniest of faults yet making almost the same or similar types of mistakes himself. I had an aspie melt down one day and walked the 4 miles home in floods of tears. My doctor wanted to sign me off with stress but i refused, after all that's the same as allowing him to win. I was moved to another team where the manager was more moderate. Then last year seconded to the web team because of my skills. That turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. In the latest restructure I now have a manager whose 20something son is also an aspie and I am thriving. There is hope but its a long hard lonely road of perseverance.