Getting to grips with the bullies

Aug 03 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

For some, modern society is ruled by the bullies and all kinds of people become victims. From the lowliest call centre to the Office of Britain's Deputy Prime Minister - criticised for the bullying of staff in an official report last year - bullying seems to be commonplace.

But as Patrick Barkham explores in a great piece in the Guardian, to others, bullying is just charisma in action.

By this thinking, leaders who offer masterful examples of motivational power are being emasculated by a burgeoning compensation culture and a readiness to believe that the slightest raised voice must belong to a sociopathic bully. Cosseted and mollycoddled, we are unwilling to accept one bad day at work or a ticking-off from the boss.

As the £800,000 damages award against Deutsche Bank earlier this week highlights, bullying is now too costly for employers (in the UK at least) to ignore. Yet, as Barkham memorably puts it, "eradicating bullying promises to be a task as neverending as the war on terror."

The Guardian | Bristle while you work


Older Comments

My husband was driven to make an attempt on his own life because of bullying and harrassment in the workplace. He suffers with PTSD and clinical depression as a result of what happened to him. The effect of his illness on our marriage and our whole life has been devastating. We did not go for compensation because we both feel uncomfortable with the compensation culture and because we didn't want an ugly fight which would have worsened my husband's health. It is seventeen months since he tried to kill himself. The day is burned into my mind like a scar. I can't forgive the things that were done and said to him, but I know the people responsible have no real idea of the damage they have done.

Jo North East Lincolnshire

Thanks for the original post and I'm sorry to hear about what happened to your husband, Jo. I work for a nonprofit in the states dedicated to helping small businesses create better work environments, Winning Workplaces. I can only offer the following pieces of advice that our Consulting and Training Director wrote in response to a worker's question about how to handle 'middle-management bullies.' Following this is the response to our post from an author of a book on the subject, Marilyn Haight. I hope it helps.


Middle-Management Bullies

Q. Over the last three years, the non-profit organization I work for has endeavored to make a lot of changes very much along the lines of your Building Blocks. In my department, however, the manager has only paid the merest lip service to these changes. Although he is in general a pleasant individual, he still persists in being arrogant, arbitrary, and outright mean to staff. To disagree with him in any way is to end up being 'written up' via a memo to human resources, who has thus far intervened in only minor ways. Once HR intervenes in a problem situation, this manager positively guns for the staff member in question, until that person is driven to quitting. In short, he's a bully.

Thus far, although HR and the president of this organization have worked hard to implement new workplaces practices, they have not really examined or acted on the pattern of abuse and retribution this manager has carried out time and again, even thought they are aware of ample examples of his behavior. The department is now at a crisis point, and none of us has much faith that the depth of the problem will be acknowledged, much less resolved. In our opinion, HR and the president have yet to demonstrate the courage of their convictions.

Any advice? We are trying as a group to begin a serious dialogue with HR. How should we proceed?

A. Your problem is not uncommon among organizations in the midst of changing their culture. It is very difficult for leaders to know what people in the heart of the organization are thinking. Further, it is often difficult to understand how managers or team leaders communicate and lead. Finally, people who are made uneasy by change can often act out in frustration, and normally pleasant people can become ghoulish. Alas, this seems to be your predicament. How can you draw the attention of decision makers to your problem in a constructive way?

Perhaps the most constructive approach that you can take, both for the organization and for individual employees, would be to suggest that the organization gather metrics to assess its progress in developing an engaging workplace. You could make this suggestion to both human resources and the president without concern for implication, for it addresses important issues for any organization that is trying to change its culture.

There are two assessment tools that organizations use to measure employee engagement and understand the effectiveness of their workplace practices, one focused on the organization and the other addressing individual development:

1. Employee opinion surveys and/or focus groups gather data from across the organization and provide feedback on the organization as a whole, with comparative data for specific work groups.

2. Individual 360-degree assessments provide feedback on the performance of individuals within the organization.

Both of these tools would be valuable to any organization that is interested in measuring its progress and are especially valuable during a time of change. Both would draw attention to the issue that your organization faces in a way that could lead to constructive action and, if handled professionally, would not implicate individuals as whistle blowers.

The leadership of your organization may well be aware of the situation that you describe and may be seeking a way to fairly and constructively address it.


Response, posted July 28, 2006:

Good suggestions. I'd like to add that it's important to develop a customized survey in this case rather than use an off-the-shelf survey. It appears that HR enables and perhaps colludes with this bully manager who is also sabotaging the organization's change initiatives. Situations like this are not typically addressed in surveys and might be missed if there are no queries for employees to address them. A statement like, 'HR interventions result in satisfactory resolutions' could be revealing.

I like the job you're doing and your positive approach to work issues at the organizational level.

May I suggest that you change your drop-down menu for 'Ask an Expert topics' to the title of the topic rather than the month and year? This will enable users to focus directly on the issues of most concern to them and read your helpful responses quickly.

Keep up the good work.

Marilyn Haight

Mark Harbeke Chicago, Illinois, USA