Beating a bullying boss

May 06 2009 by Brian Amble Print This Article

The Working Week podcast hits a milestone this week as we post the 100th edition of Wayne Turmel's consistently excellent look at the world of work in all its guises. And for the 100th show, we tackle the issue that is the most common subject of questions sent to our advice clinic and features prominently in questions and comments made on the site. That issue is the perennial scourge of bullying bosses.

This week, Wayne is joined by Robert Mueller, a lawyer and author of A Survivor's Guide: How to Transcend the Illusion of the Interpersonal

Just how big a problem is bullying? What sort of behaviors bullying? What sort of people are bullies. And critically how do you beat a bully?

One of Robert's more controversial assertions is that bullying can't be tackled through psychological means - it need to be viewed and tackled as a business issue. He also asserts that context is all-important. For example, what might be acceptable or normal on a construction site could be completely unacceptable in an office environment and visa-versa.

Personal confrontations with bullies are almost never productive, he argues, nor is trying to talk to management or still less - HR. That's because management will most likely interpret any confrontation an employee might have with a boss as being a confrontation with them, and without well-documented proof of a pattern of behavior, they will likely view the employee as the problem.

Since you'll never defeat a bully on their own ground, what can you do? Robert argues you need a sound, methodical strategy. You need to document, document, document. Collect data. Approach your bullying problem like a work project. Be methodical in how you behave, perform, document, and strategize.

Jot down just the key details. Put them on an incident report form or file them on cards. Note the time, date, place, people, key quotes and behavior of concern. All bullies create patterns in what they do, Robert says. And bullying is not about what happened on a particular day. It's a campaign conducted over time.

Document even the smallest incidents, since these often become the most important signs of a pattern of bullying that might not otherwise be apparent. That means every instance of teasing, sarcasm, criticism, a public glare or silent treatment. Don't let yourself get isolated. Every day, pick out someone you haven't talked to for a while. Have a brief but focused, attentive conversation that focuses on them. Bullies work hard to alienate targets from their coworkers. Don't let that happen to you.

To earn the support of others, support them first. A bully will try to isolate you, but they are limited by the fact that they are unable to connect with others. That's what makes them a bully. But you can offer real support to others, whether work-related or no. That's how to build influence and at the same time- start to erode the bully's powerbase.

Another of Robert's tips is to look for other work but not necessarily to take another job. Nothing fosters strength and good humor in a negative environment better than the freedom to leave it. Similarly, try to build self-esteem and a positive attitude. Pay attention to how your appearance. Have a comfy chair in your office for coworkers. Make your personal space an oasis of calm and taste.

During a bullying situation, excuse yourself. Don't beat a hasty retreat, and don't leave the building. Tell your abuser that you're late for an appointment with HR, for example. Or casually excuse yourself to the restroom. Never enter the restroom if you are being pursued by a bully.

But that's not to say you shouldn't try distracting your abuser. Pick up something physical - as long at it's not a threatening item - such as a critical file that needs the bully's attention or a note with an important phone number that needs to be called.

Finally, remember to protect your personal information. Tell bullies as little as possible about your life, family, friends, hobbies, interests, religion, and so on. Information about you gives them power. But equally, gathering information about them will give you the tools you need to defend yourself and prove your case.

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Older Comments

Congratualations to Management-Issues for making this sensitive and often painful topic your choice for the 100th podcast!

Roland Luxembourg

I worked the same job for 26 years with outstanding eer's, then the sisters of charity turned the hospital over to catholic heath initiatives who promptly proceeded to drive it into the ground after firing anyone in management who knew what they were doing. my particular problem was with a supervisor they hired who ordered me to perform a task that was both illegal, an electrical code violation and a definite electrocution hazard, ie. there was a decorative pump in an accessible courtyard that was tripping the groundfault it was tied in to. He gave me a direct order to hard wire it, this pump was leaking 590 ma to ground and I refused. He called me, my immediate boss and 2 of his lap dogs in his office and commenced to furiously chew my butt for not doing what I was told. I called the state electrical inspector who ate him out for 10 minutes. Then the harassment ans intimidation really started in earnest, i stood it for a week and then retired early. I talked to a laywer and he told me it would cost 10 grand to fight it even if I could find a judge that would take the case or buck the hospitals money. OSHA, osha couldn't have cared less and didn't want to deal with it.

mark morell little rock arkansas

'Workplace violence is any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee either physically or psychologically. Bullying is a non-homicidal form of violence and a systematic campaign that jeopardizes your health, your career, your family and the job you once loved. And because it is violent , emotional and physical harm results. Bullies are not psychopaths. They are normal people who get very aggressive at work. And it is not about you'.( To date there are ten employees including myself who have been subjected to various forms of repeated harassing, malicious, cruel and humiliating attempts to undermine us by the same manager, in the same department, in the same facility in southern New Hampshire. Four employees have been terminated while the others have left because of the emotional toll it was taking on their health. Having worked with eight of these wonderful people I can attest to their character, professionalism, skill, loyalty and genuine care for the people in the community. One employee was tormented and terminated after 38 years of service excellence. She was constantly ordered into meetings without any warning or support and subjected to being yell at, intimidated, belittled and routinely threatened with termination. She was humiliated and tormented by words, intonations and attacks on her character even though her work performance and yearly reviews were very good. Another employee from the same department was terminated last week. I was terminated from this department after 28 years of continuous, loyal service to this facility. Like the other employees my evaluations were great, coworkers enjoyed working with me and my patients appreciated all that I did for them. I had received a substantial pay raise 5 months before the torment and bullying began because the management said they ' appreciated the years of dedication, professionalism and ability to be a team player. What we all have in common is the fact we were subjected to emotional distress and psychological harassment over a period of time resulting in mental and physical distress. By this managers words, intonations and actions he created an environment that was hostile and offensive. And the documentation about each encounter we had with this bully was twisted, inaccurate and crafted to be so hurtful we were doubting our sanity. . Sadly the administration including Human Resources were aware of the hostile work environment within this department and did nothing to prevent or abate the problem. We begged them for help but were just sent back to the bully for 'conflict resolution' . Stopping workplace violence requires more than mere 'conflict resolution'. We were offered counseling but only at the hands of this abuser. Workplace violence is an occupational and safety health hazard and addressed by OSHA in their guidelines for preventing workplace violence for healthcare and social service workers. (OSHA 3148-01R2004). I would be interested in knowing the cost of mental and physical ill health that this stress has caused on not only the abused employee but to all the others that witnessed the abuse and were too afraid for their jobs to say anything. I know I ended up in the emergency room with chest pains after a particularly cruel meeting, sought out psychological counseling and took two weeks of short term disability to try and process what was happening to me. On January 7, 2010 a legislature from Hinsdale, New Hampshire proposed legislation (House Bill 1403) designed to provide legal protection for workers subjected to an abusive and hostile work environment. Several of us who were negatively impacted by this cruel and evil manager shared our experiences before the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee in Concord, NH. Sadly the proposed bill went no farther. Hopefully with public awareness, a new administration and claims of abuse causing medical malpractice to soar due to bullying employees and patient injury we can say that bullying in the workplace is wrong financially and morally. It shouldn't hurt to go to work. I found a wonderful website that is designed for employees that have been bullied. This site is designed for bullied individuals to help educate in hopes of making a difference in your health ,and, in return, your life. Thank you for listening.

Marj New Hampshire