Work bullies & bad bosses

June 9th, 2005 by Julie Ferguson

Most of us can remember some grade school nightmare involving a bully. My nemesis was a seemingly innocuous and almost cherubic looking boy who had the soul of Attila. There wasn’t a single kid in the school or pet in the neighborhood that didn’t feel the toe of his boot, either literally or figuratively. It really wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I were to learn he had orchestrated all the shameful doings at Abu Ghraib. Or perhaps you might know him – maybe he’s your boss.
Diane Lewis of the Boston Globe recently wrote a lengthy piece on the topic of bullying bosses using the controversy about John Bolton as her lead. As a parade of former colleagues and subordinates line up to protest his appointment as an ambassador to the U.N. on the basis of his temperament, I wonder if he wishes he had spent a bit more time honing his people skills?
The Bolton nomination seems to be enjoying some popularity as a springboard for a discussion about abusive bosses. See Amy Joyce’s recent article, Big Bad Boss Tales, in the Washington Post for a rogues gallery – a badness hall of fame, so to speak.
Lewis cites a study by Wayne State University that indicates that one out of every six workers are bullied by bosses in any given year. A study by Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute found that 71 percent of workplace bullies outranked their victims.
Bosses aren’t the only bullies
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a recent study on workplace bullying that has a somewhat different take on the matter. Their findings showed that bullying was more likely to be peer to peer than manager to worker. Of the 516 respondents, 24.5 percent reported that some degree of bullying had occurred at their workplace during the preceding year; 39.2 percent named an employee as the aggressor, 24.5 percent said the bullying involved an outside customer/nonemployee, and 14.7 percent involved a supervisor.
Whether the source of the bullying is a supervisor, a coworker, a customer, or the head honcho in the corner office, it can have a serious and pernicious effect on the work culture, eroding trust and goodwill. It can also be expensive. Not only will angry, sullen workers be less than productive, they may find a sympathetic hearing in court for harassment or for being victims of a hostile workplace. And if a work injury occurs, egregious behavior or misconduct on the part of a supervisor might pierce the shield that generally holds workers comp as the exclusive remedy. While “no fault” is the operating rule, when serious misconduct can be established, all bets are off. And it should be particularly noted that most states take a decidedly dim view of any retaliatory actions for claims that have been or might be filed.
Rooting out a bully culture
Employers need to take a hard look at their company culture and root out any bullying behavior. We like to think most employers want do the right thing. We believe that most people aspire to excellence, but sometimes just have trouble getting there – the devil is in those pesky details.
Presidents, business owners, and CEOs must take a leadership role by setting the tone and establishing and enforcing “zero tolerance” policies. Supervisors should be trained in conflict resolution, anger management, and preventing harassment. A system for reporting, investigating, and resolving complaints should be established. Employees should be informed of how to report a complaint, and be assured that they will not be retaliated against for doing so. While HR should play a key role in this process, it might be beneficial to have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) on board, too, so that employees have recourse to an external source if they are too intimidated to pursue a complaint internally.
More reading on the topic of bullying:
Beware: Bullies at work
Are you working for a bully?
Bullies at work
Rough, raunchy or rude: Workplace bullying increases health care costs, lowers productivity
Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute