Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why Do Bullies Get Ahead?

I just read an intersting article in the Epoch Times ( that stated that in a recent survey it was found that over 90% of workplace bullies were promoted or in some other way rewarded despite their inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Indeed, throughout my 15 year career in human services, I found that workplace bullies often got their way and were promoted to leadership/management positions. Toxic bosses often run rampant through their workplaces like bulls in a china shop - with no regard for the health and welfare of their staff or the clientele they serve. I have been yelled at in front of my team mates, berated in front of clients, called names, and have even been accused of being the sole cause for the organization's complete failure. Just recently a friend told me that her boss sat the team down and told them that if they ever reported her to HR for any reason, she would have something bad done to them - then she singled out one particularly attractive female on the team and told her that if she ever reported the boss to HR, she would have her raped! Let's see how many laws were broken in this last example:
  • harassment (against labour law)
  • uttering a threat (see criminal code, folks!)

Never mind the fact that she is openly intimidating the members of her team, and closing off their only option for recourse (reporting her to HR), which by the way, is typical of bullies.

How is it that these kinds of people are allowed to remain in leadership positions? The answer (unfortunately) is quite simple. We let them! Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can hurt your feelings unless you give them permission." Although I used this quote for many years in my seminars, I never really learned the power of the statement until I found myself at the mercy of a REALLY toxic bully supervisor. She had me fearing for my job and unable to get up in the morning because of the negative anticipation of what the day might hold. She was mean, shrill, and downright evil. Then one day I woke up and did what I tell my clients to do. I evaluated the situation and asked myself the question: "What's the worst thing that can happen if she fires me?" - The answer wasn't so bad... first, I wouldn't have to go to work to put up with her anymore. That was a huge bonus. Second, I have lots of skills - I could find another job, or just work in my business more and build that up. Either way, I would win by not working there anymore.

Once I faced my demons, I decided that I wasn't going to give her permission to poop on me anymore. Sure enough, that day, she called me into her office for another slap down session, and I looked her in the eye, and asked her if she planned to fire me, because if so, I wanted to get my resume ready. The response was amazing. Her jaw dropped, and for the first time, she was speechless. She stumbled over her words until she finally said, "Well, there's nothing in it for me if I fire you." Then I was able to lay out my expectations - I told her that the constant monitoring was counterproductive, and that I needed to get to work if she expected me to "improve". In other words, I called the slap down sessions to a halt. From that point onward, she treated me differently - because I took away the permission to treat me badly!

Since that time, I have advanced, and regressed in my ability to stand up for myself; just as we all do. Depending on the situation and the stake we have invested in any particular thing (job, relationship, purchase - whatever), it seems to be human nature to back away from conflict for fear of losing... However, we lose much more when we sacrifice our self esteem and our emotional and mental stability to the whims of a workplace bully.

So here are some ways to counter bullying at work.

  1. The next time your boss, supervisor or co-worker yells at you, act surprised and genuinely disappointed in their immature behaviour, shake your head, and say NOTHING. It takes two to escalate an argument, and if you don't engage, they will just be on a wild rampage to nowhere.
  2. If your typical response has been to say nothing - that in itself could be interpreted as permission. So in this case, speak up. Don't yell or raise your voice to the other party's level, just be firm. You can state your limits, "Don't talk to me like that..." or set boundaries, "Let's talk about this later - you clearly are not in a position where we can discuss this rationally right now." Chances are you will not have the opportunity to get that whole sentence out, but you have stated your expectations, and if the behaviour continues, you can feel free in walking away.
  3. Despite the threats of retaliation - REPORT to HR! If you have no HR department, then call the labour board, or better yet, call the police. If someone threatens to have you raped, you should acknowledge that threat, your response might be something like, "That sounds like a threat, and if you're serious, I'll have to notify the police." The bully will likely retract the threat, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't call the cops. If something ever happens to you, better to have the report on file than not.

Whining and asking, "why do you always treat me this way?" only feeds the bully's fire. This is what the bully wants - to see that his/her intimidation tactics are working. When you call the bully on his/her behaviour, s/he has to answer for it. Most workplaces have anti-harassment or anti-bullying policies. Under definition of Canadian law, most of the behaviours I have described in this blog constitute workplace violence, and cannot be allowed to go unchecked. I for one am tired of coming up against people who think the only way they can get what they want out of their staff is to berate, belittle, and bully them. You don't need a union or even the support of your team behind you to have a backbone. All you have to do is say, "I won't allow you to treat me this way." Think about it... What's the worst that could happen?

Something to think about!