Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Bully at Work

I remember being the target of a bully when I was in elementary school. I remember everything about the girl...her name, how she used to catch me on the playground when I was jumping rope and make her nasty comments to me.

I can recall with equal clarity the time I was bullied on the job. I remember the continual stress of facing the man every day, the pitying looks from co-workers, the fact that I eventually left the job because I couldn't stand it any more.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvick, an assistant professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and an expert on workplace bullying, says my recollections and feelings about being bullied are typical of others who have had similar experiences.
"It can remain really fresh in a person's mind for a long, long time," she says. "It's something you don't forget."

Further, she notes that workplace bullying is difficult to cope with "because our identities are inextricably linked to what we do," and bullies are striking at the heart of who we believe ourselves to be.

In her study of workplace bullying, Lutgen-Sandvick found that while bullying can take place anywhere, certain professions seem to have more incidents of the behavior. Included: government/public administration, health care and high-end restaurants.

According to research, both men and women can be bullies. “Bullying is a silent epidemic that affects one in six workers,” says Gary Namie, a workplace-bullying expert. “It is witnessed by nearly 80 percent of workers who don’t do anything about it. It’s a dirty little secret.”

Who is most likely to become the target of a bully? Namie says targets often have a strong sense of equity, justice and integrity and a very strong belief in what they believe to be right and wrong. Bullies are the opposite – they feel inadequate even though they strut around like peacocks. They are secretly intimidated by the target’s intelligence, creativity and confidence. In order to deal with what they perceive to be a threat, bullies begin spreading rumors and innuendo about the target and may try to sabotage work.

As Namie says, bullies often target the most talented in the workplace because “the dolts don’t threaten anybody.”

That’s why if you’re talented and creative and have been bullied once, chances are good it could happen again.

“The targets of bullies often are people who are strong and independent and talented and believe they can tough it out,” Namie says. “But once the bullying starts, most can only stay 16.5 months because it costs them their health.”

What are some behaviors that may prompt a bully to make you a target? Research shows that making statements where you put yourself down such as, “I’m bad with computers – I’m so dumb,” or “You guys should just go on without me because I’m no help and I’ll just slow you down,” put a bully on alert. At the same time, behaviors that may betray a lack of confidence such as talking too slow, (which allows a bully to interrupt) or too fast (betraying nervousness), also attract a bully’s notice.

The non-verbal cues also play a role: Bullies look for those who don’t walk confidently with head held high, or those who fail to use gestures to emphasize a point as if they’re afraid to call attention to themselves. Bullies also will test you by invading your personal space and seeing whether you put them back in their place.

Namie adds that bullies also are lazy and look for easy marks. That’s why they often will try their intimidation on new employees because they know the vulnerabilities that go along with being the new kid on the block. Still, research shows that some 75 percent of the workforce does not tolerate being controlled by another person, and a bully will back off when resistance is shown – even if it’s a new employee.

If you become the target of a bully, Namie says you should:
• Stop listening to the bully’s lies and verbal assaults. You did nothing wrong and don’t need to feel ashamed.
• Break through your fears. Even if you do it for only one week, it’s better to confront your worst fear and stand up to the bully. Procrastination only makes the problem worse.
• Assert your right to be treated with respect regardless of who you are and where you rank.
• Demand respect directly from the bully whenever you interact. You owe it to yourself.
• Document the bully’s misconduct. Report him/her to anyone who will listen. Break the silence.
• Rally witnesses and co-workers to help defend you, to shame the cowardly bully-tyrant.

Bullying – whether it happens when we’re kids or when we’re adults – can be very difficult. If you need help coping, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. Your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) can offer resources, as well as community mental health organizations. Also, check out for more strategies and information.


Bill Lampton, Ph.D. said...

Having worked for a quintessential bully named Ralph for five years, I want to let your readers know some signals that indicate your boss is a bully.

--Titles are paramount. Ralph, wasn't on a first name basis with anyone. . .didn't want to be. He expected all of us to address him as Dr. I did that for awhile, then realized that because I have a Ph.D. too, there was no need to make myself subservient. I switched to "Hello, Ralph," shocking him and everyone else in the meeting that day. I never switched back to the formal greeting.

--The bully rarely has hobbies. Once someone asked Ralph about his hobbies. "Why," he replied, "I come in on weekends, catch up on mail, and plan the next week."

--The bully despises small talk. Once when I returned from a beach vacation I walked in for my regular meeting with Ralph. Immediately, he said "Our agenda for today is. . . ."

--The bully assumes the worst about you. Logic and evidence take a back seat to the bully's assumptions. Ralph accused me of delaying a slide show production, when in fact I had sent him my recommendations for changes and he had ignored them for weeks.

--The bully makes elephants look like amnesiacs, because the bully never forgets any mistake you made, and will refer to it repeatedly, even two or three years later.

If your boss has one or more of these traits, keep your resume updated.

Photonoos said...

A few other things to remember about workplace bullying:

- A large part of the rest of the western industrialized world has ways to seek recourse if need be. The US has only very narrowly defined categories for harassment and discrimination complaints.

- Company policies can mean nothing. They may say that certain behaviors at work are unacceptable. Company policies only require compliance (on the company's part) if it is a part of a contract. So they should say, "This is the company policy...if we feel like it."

- The primary argument against workplace bullying legislation in states which have tried to pass such laws include an anticipated increase in 'frivolous' litigation. Determining this cannot be predicted without having the law in place to test that speculation. The rational, however is based the asumption that the determiners of workplace bullying are too subjective. In reality, workplace bullies are not simply bad bosses and it takes more than one bad run-in with someone to have them considered a bully. Bullies take repeated actions against individual targets. The criteria to determine if bullying has occured becomes quantifiable if repeated incidents are directed at an individual and they are documented or witnessed. So claims that there would be excessive unfounded litigation are not credible.

- Studies indicate that in 51 percent of cases HR will do nothing in bullying cases. Additionally, the same studies indicate that HR will take negative actions or do things detrimental to the bullied target's plight in 32 percent of bullying complaints. (per

If employers wish there to be no anti-workplace bullying laws, they should put their own houses in order with preventative measures, legitimate internal recourse and a commitment to absolute zero-tolerance for workplace bullying. Anything less requires that laws exist, as in any other situation, to protect citizens from harm.


Anonymous said...

Much of the literature assumes that the bullying is being done by an supervisor. I has a situation in which an introverted employee made life hell for anyone she targeted. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on. Anyone have advice on this type of situation

Anonymous said...

I have 90 plus bullies taking orders from management who should have fired me 11 months ago for unprofessional behavior. But they didn't. Instead, they sanctioned the bullying. I guess they thought it would be easier to get me to quit. Firing me would have been the easiet way to go. The man power they have wasted all these months on sanctioned bullying.

I once overhead an employee tell a new employee that they were trying to drive me crazy and to pretend to not know anything if asked about it. The company has even had me followed. I thought they had a GPS tracker on my car. Then I realized they do it by cell phone. I can't prove anything and they know it. My work is sabotaged, my connection to the printer is unlinked. One of the men lied that they hadn't been able to print anything. I knew he was lying because I had just come across another employee going to the printer to pick up his paper. So, I thought I would ask the guy who sits next to me to see if he would tell me the truth. He didn't. I would even hazard to say they have entered my house, gotten into my computer, connected my computer to their's with spy software. I don't have proof and I know I sound paranoid.

The HR told me not to tell personal information about myself. The bullies use it against you. The thing is the people and the company are information junkies, that's their industry. I think they are trying to make me think that they can find out anything they want about me. So what! As long as they don't kill me or rape me or steal from my house when they enter illegaly. If they find out about this posting, they'll retaliate. They always do.

Anonymous said...

Bullies are not always bosses. I once had a coworker who believed that a woman's place was in the home, barefoot and pregnant. As the first female engineer in the company, I was targeted by him. He would go through my desk when I wasn't there, sometimes stealing things. He would sabotage my work. He was supposed to supply me with information so that I could manage projects, but would withhold information or give me outdated information. In his attempts to make me look bad, he even went so far as to contact customers without my knowledge and change the projects.

When he was successful in making me look incompetent, he also made the company look incompetent in the eyes of the customers whose projects I was managing. I was his target and as far as other workers were concerned, it was "not my problem."

I documented the problems with this man and presented my complaints to the boss, the owner of the company. He tried to brush it off: "boys will be boys." and "no one else is complaining. Guess you don't know how to handle him." When he realized that his company might be effected, he finally had a talk with the bully. The behavior stopped for about two days, then resumed. The bully had been golfing with the boss over the weekend and felt emboldened.

When I finally stood up to this man, he fell apart. He started yelling so loud that no one in the office could pretend they didn't know. He started name calling and shouting that he would never cooperate with me. He was fired. You might think things got better, but they didn't. His buddies then set out to get me because I "got a good man fired", as the boss told me.

Needless to say, I don't work there any more. The damage that was done to my self esteem at that job has been long lasting. Only counseling has allowed me to move on. Oh, and the company - they nearly went under from the poor management. They have downsized to a small portion of their previous size.

Yes, there are laws against harassment, and I had documented a solid case against this company. However,I knew that if I sued this company, my name would be forever blackballed in the engineering community here. I would be labeled as a trouble maker and would never work as an engineer in this community again. Companies count on this type of peer pressure as a lever against lawsuits by employees who are injured by their corporate culture.

Anonymous said...

I'm having a big problem with a guy at work. I work in an office with three guys and I'm a woman. Anyway, this bully has targeted me. He intimadates me. One time I questioned him about a order that came in and he started screaming at me to get his point across. Him and the boss are good friends and the boss knows whats going on. Finally, we had a meeting about communication last week and he attacked me by saying I'm defensive, he's afraid to offend me and I'm a complainer. I was so shocked. I haven't been able to get any sleep and when I go into work I'm really nervous he is going to go off on me. Tomorrow I plan to have a talk with my supervisor (I already put in one complaint about him) and say I don't want to have any contact with him. That includes him saying things to me, how to do my job. I have documented stuff. If they want to fire me they can go ahead with that. I just want my happy self back.

Anonymous said...

Question, I was laughing at a text I got from husband today and co worker asked what it was about. I told him and my boss of course overheard as she sits 2 feet from desk. My husband was at ChuckyCheese and ran into a few friends. I mentioned to my coworker I wish I was with them. Who doesnt want to be with family and friends. My boss then said If you really feel the need to be with you familiy just go ahead and go. Wht the hell yeah leave and loose my job. She was very sarcastic about it and I thought it was so stupid to say something like that! Help

Anita said...

Dear anonymous,
I'm not sure I would classify this as being a bully boss. I think this may have been a boss who saw an employee taking care of private business on company time and instead of talking to the employee privately about it, she made an unprofessional comment in front of others.
As managers are under increasing pressure because of economic problems that are hitting every private sector, and under pressure from THEIR bosses to find a way to be more competitive, more productive and more innovative, it will be more critical than ever that employees not add to that stress -- or they could find themselves unemployed in a very tough job market.
I agree that the way she handled it was not the best, but at the same time, it was inappropriate of you to be checking private texts while at work and then commenting to another co-worker you wish you were somewhere else. I know you were kidding -- but you learned the hard lesson that others are always listening at work.
If I were you, I would put away my private cell phone and not check it until break time.

Anonymous said...

I was in a company 5 years, the last year and a half was when the bullying started because, this is the ironic part : I was asked to take on certain aspects of a new system because I excelled at the training/designing of it and I had a good rapport with staff. I didn't even go looking for this position - the very same "bully managers behind the curtain" (the ones who started siding with 2 main bullies in the end) came looking for me to take on this role as the new system trainer/designer. The whole reason I was bullied into the ground was because (and this really is schoolyard stuff) - "I HOLD MY ANNUAL REVIEWS WITH THE BUSINESS DIRECTOR HIMSELF AND WHO EVER HEARD OF A PROJECT OFFICER HAVING THE DIRECTOR AS THEIR LINE MANAGER".

Anyway Mr Hyde (quiet serial bully - most deadly) and his hench-man Dr Jekyll (really aggressive) started over a year long campaign against me that started with constant nit-picking, questioning my ability to actual sabotaging of my work and so much more....

(I realised their tactics because anyone listening wouldn't realise how small these issues really are when someone else is using IT terminology/they must have thought something terrible must have gone wrong). These issues were the equivalent of someone puttng 'their' instead of 'there' and another tactic was if someone asked for something to be done by me, they would subtly say that I wouldn't know how to do that and that they would carry it out for them instead (I went from in the beginning my phone constantly on the go and people coming to see me constantly, to in the end - I would be lucky if I got 6 calls during the day usually starting with My Hyde said you mightn't be able to do this but ......... (funny it was stuff I had done countless times before to advanced level) So I went from being exceptionally good at my job and well liked to before I was fired being viewed as completely incompetent and a trouble maker, (trouble maker because for 4 months or so I tried to iron out our "personality clash" as Senior Management called it) oh and unable to work as a "team player" or "under supervision". If I hadn't found the hard evidence against them on the sabotaging of my work (deleting training databases 5 mins before giving presentations/workshops among other things), I would have probably left thinking they were probably right - that I was just not up for the job and I was starting to think I was going "crazy".


HR ended up changing it to voluntary redundancy and severance pay. I should have brought it to court but I didn't have the strength at the time - Backpain/developed shingles and serious anxiety (I have lost serious trust in human nature)

I was told that I was not only trying to deal with a chronic bully at the time, but also someone who was showing all the traits of a narcissist which could be true for one of them. What I understand of Narcissism or Histronics apart from the main traits and seemed to be true for one of them, is that they don't seem to understand the spoken word or written word in relation to the context it is said in, and the emotion involved. Its like he used to mimic or steal another person(s) personality but lack what you would call being the "real McCoy" or being in sync, but I don't know, this could also be another bullying ploy to knock you off-balance. I know a few people who are very much "myself first, myself last and anything going myself again" but it is only when you meet someone who has full NPD that you walk away feeling off balance but not sure why. If it helps anyone and this is a backward complement - but the majority of times a target gets bullied (and this has been proven) is because they are good at there job (if not excelling)/popular and usually pose a threat in someway to the bullies. In my case it was Mr Hyde (serial bully) who wanted part of my job, the training side (he is now doing it) because it was a little more high profile and a step into management, and Dr Jekyll (screaming mimi) because he was afraid for his - he was a contractor who did much the same type of work as me (not very well but adequate enough), but now he is the only one that knows that side of things so hey presto! job security (oh and his line Manager is Mr Hyde - he does like controling people).

I'm left with PTSD and a horrible pale discolouration down one side of my back from shingles. (Didn't know Irish skin could get any paler.

If I ever get targeted again I am just going to say quite sweetly but very loudly so other people hear. "Oh what a compliment you have picked me to be your next target for bullying - that must mean that I am very good at my job". Would you like my resignation in writing or will a verbal aggreement do.

Unknown said...

I have been dealing with someone I've come to realize is a borderline. We've been together off and on in this little room and she commands your attention, which makes it hard to work. She is also up and down with dramatic emotional upheavels, that we are supposed to give her sufficient coddling. She sucks the energy out of the room. I was okay for the first few years, and never confronted her for fear of an explosive temper tantrum. Now my psychiatrist has told me I must be removed from this toxic situation so my supervisor moved me to another level. Now this former coworker talks about how well the other people are working with her and how they are cleaning my work up (saying I didn't do well and let work undone, which is not true). It seems hard to tell her to knock it off cuz I know she' talking about me, but I think I will do that. Besides, what is she doing at my level, at my desk, trying to get some kind of rise out of me? Very rarely did she come to the level I am working at now. I will say something to her about that also. If all else fails, my doctor may put me out of work for a while and I will have to take some recourse through our grievance process at work. Any suggestions? Cyndi, California

Anita said...

While I'm sorry this has been such a painful experience for you (you're not alone as you can see by this other comments), I would suggest you do some preparation to know how to deal with the situation so that you don't let this bully continue to ruin your life. Check out:

There's some terrific suggestions on this site, and I think you should really sit down and map out a plan, and even practice your responses with a friend or loved one. Let them practice "bullying" you, and then focus on how you are going to respond. Having control of your response will help. Good luck.