Twelve months after being hired at his company, Jerome, who had recently graduated summa cum laude from one of the world’s highest ranked law schools, hated going to work and suffered from panic attacks. The cause? Jerome’s boss had systematically criticized Jerome’s work in front of his peers and insinuated that Jerome wasn’t talented enough to ever become Partner. Jerome’s boss was a bully. According to The Workplace Bullying Institute’s (WBI) 2017 national survey, Jerome makes up one of the 30 million US workers who has directly experienced workplace bullying. Bullies use psychological power as a means to belittle, humiliate, threaten or intimidate coworkers, explicitly or implicitly. Some research concludes that workplace bullying occurs four times more often than sexual harassment.
Bullying will often cause systemic repercussions. Persistent, deliberate, intimidating verbal and non-verbal behaviors that isolate targets can be symptomatic of organizational dysfunction. Leaders must accept that even the best corporate values cannot always prevent repetitively abusive behavior. Positive, empowering company cultures must be tended like a garden. Even if bullying is pulled out by the roots, it may take hold again. Attentive cultivation of the organization is an ongoing process. In other words, organizational systems that are blind to, or negligent of, bullying behaviors, suffer from tangible and intangible losses that are bound to interfere with an organization’s growth and productivity, not to mention the flourishing of individuals and communities within those organizations.
According to WBI, 71% of US employers don’t effectively react to workplace bullying. On the other hand, once confronted, some bullies come to grips with, and deeply regret, how much they hurt their target(s) and, by extension, their organization. Former bullies and their targets often provide valuable advice to aid leadership in rooting out undue hostility. What they recommend:
1. SHARE YOUR FEELINGS AND TAKE CONTROL
Discuss the perpetrator’s behavior and its impact on you with a trusted confidant, preferably someone outside of work. Sylvia, a 42 -year-old chemical engineer, solicited her HR department’s help for a deteriorating relationship with her boss. Instead of further investigation, HR recommended yoga for Sylvia’s stress-related insomnia and casually justified the boss’s offensive conduct by saying, “He’s got a good heart, Sylvia.” By tacitly approving of her boss’s behavior, HR sustained the corrosive dynamic. Feeling marginalized by HR, and having no one else at work with whom to share her ever-increasing stress, Sylvia hired an experienced external coach to discuss her boss’s repetitive sarcasm, exclusionary tactics and verbal contempt for her work, as well as how to construct a plan for saving herself. The coach’s deep listening and astute observations renewed Sylvia’s confidence, eased her panic and ignited her resolve to take charge. Within a few weeks, Sylvia built a well-planned exit strategy. Ultimately, like 66% of targets, Sylvia left her company. She’d understood that her employer’s inaction was, in fact, an endorsement of a corporate culture that ignored bullying and its deleterious consequences.
2. GET A REALITY CHECK
For years, Louise, a pharmaceuticals SVP, consistently received glowing feedback from her teams and bosses. Her most recent boss of fourteen months, however, began to accuse Louise of insubordination within two months of managing her. Louise worked even harder than she had been and, according to peers, her output was exceptional. Six months later, Louise’s boss cited her inferior work, an unmanageable attitude and unsatisfactory results as means for dismissal. Louise, dumbfounded, was escorted to her car within minutes of being fired and spent the next several weeks in a haze of anger, confusion and self-blame. Soon thereafter, Louise suffered personal losses which transformed how she experienced her firing. Nine weeks after her firing, Louise’s mother died. Six weeks later, she lost her best friend to suicide. Three weeks after that, Louise’s husband was transferred to another country for work. The sacking receded into memory after such tragic events; Louise quickly gained perspective. She knew that her dismissal was not her fault and that it was far less significant in comparison to the grief she faced after such heartbreaking, relentless loss. Today, Louise sponsors a support group for victims of systematic, debilitating workplace harassment. Louise’s story informs her message: “Things can always get worse. Your job is not your life. The life you live and the love you cultivate are infinitely more precious than one job and one boss.”
3. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING
Save every email correspondence, text and voice mail that demonstrates a bully’s unacceptable conduct over time. Riccardo received reproachful texts from his boss at all hours of the night. These texts became part of the evidence that ultimately ended his boss’s career. Too often, victims delete correspondence because they’re ashamed of a toxic relationship they believe they have caused. Bullies thrive on the self-blame and embarrassment of their victims. Sensing these reactions only fuels a bully’s sense of power. Meticulous documentation, saved outside of work, may help others who in the future could get trapped in the same bully’s insidious harassment. Victims can impact entire systems and push senior management to take decisive action. The #MeToo movement (https://metoomvmt.org) and the over 150 gymnasts who put an end to former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser’s sickening abuse, offer stunning examples of victims courageously joining voices to expose and dismantle sexual harassment.
4. MAKE THE BUSINESS CASE
Routinely, bullies act out of feelings of deep insecurity, often targeting the most skilled, socially adept and well-liked colleagues. Fight back by outlining the high costs of keeping a bully, versus retaining and developing high potential talent, to convince senior managers to take action and install zero-tolerance policies. This approach must focus on the bottom line, not on subjective, emotional wounds. Daniel and Tamika, peers who reported to the same bully, made a case to the most senior, non-HR, manager with whom they could get an audience. Their report calculated fixed and variable costs for organizations that shield bullies. Absenteeism, lack of engagement, productivity, opportunity losses, turnover, legal costs and negative PR, were some of the itemized risks. The senior manager championed the cause after understanding the organization’s immediate and residual financial costs, as well as feeling compassion and responsibility for Daniel and Tamika.
Even just one person’s bullying behavior can shatter individuals and organizations alike. Targets can work together to orchestrate deliberate, combative actions to dismantle power structures that protect perpetrators. An organization’s senior leadership must address openly and candidly its stance on zero toleration of bullying. Individuals can use any one of the four tactics above to take control, or confront a bully, and or transform corrosive organizational cultures.