March 15, 2007

When the bully is the boss

..."Good employers purge workplace bullies," Olson says. "Bad employers promote them." Targets (she prefers this term to "victims") tend to be "empathetic, just and fair people." The bully "will watch and seek the opportunity to pick on someone who they see as vulnerable and threatening," says Barb Becker of Elroy, who says she lost a higher education job because of bullying. "It's hard to recognize when it's happening," she says, because incidents may appear petty to others. Today she works with sexually violent people and "I find that less stressful."

The affected employee's first reaction, Olson says, is that "if you're getting targeted, you must have done something wrong." Advice to "grow a thicker skin" or "don't take things so seriously" are typical, but Namie says bullying is "way beyond a personality conflict - it's not involving personality at all," but a power imbalance that is repeated and consistent. He thinks "bullies know they're bullies, but have rationalized their actions."

Consider the boss who ignores or rolls his eyes at a worker's question, the co-worker who intimidates and isolates through body language, voice level or gossip. An employee may be treated differently than peers: excluded from department socializing, or his work accomplishments may be minimized...

"There's no case law for this, and in the vast majority of cases, there is no legal recourse," Namie says. Eleven states have introduced 25 bills to address bullying, and Joanna Thoms of Menasha, in litigation with Berbee Information Networks Corp. because of alleged bullying, is trying to get legislation introduced in Wisconsin.

Australia, Quebec and several European nations recognize "mobbing in the workplace" and for years have had laws in place to control it. "Until evil is named, it cannot be addressed," Marquette University ethicist Daniel Maguire has said, in support of a book about this topic. Olson says being a tough boss, or an employee who challenges authority, is different than bullying. Bullying, she says, is deliberate, hurtful and repeated. It is mistreatment "driven by the bully's desire to control the target."

"The stress, as a consequence, is like post-traumatic stress syndrome," says Olson. She and Namie also draw parallels to domestic violence, in which the target sometimes blames herself for the situation. "It falls on the abused to stop" the behavior," Namie says. There is denigration, a tendency to "blame them for their plight and force them to resolve it."

Stress can be compounded by the reactions of co-workers. "Other people around the target tend to keep their head down; we can't cope with the illogic of it, so there is this problem with people jumping on board" by ignoring, isolating or ganging up on the person being bullied
, Olson says.

Sweden in 1994 enacted the first legislation to confront bullying. Quebec legislation, enacted 10 years later, has since resulted in the filing of 4,000 complaints - but "people are fairly discouraged," Namie says, because only one has made it through the legal labyrinth.

Olson believes there is a growing amount of bullying at work, in part because "hierarchy was more established in the past - you knew your place, you got and followed your orders." Having a more egalitarian society changes those dynamics, says Olson, who conducts workshops on bullying for college students, employment lawyers, labor unions and others.

"Bullying may be difficult to detect, but it is far more common than harassment or workplace violence and can be equally as devastating...

What are the solutions? "You need to support the target," Olson says, and "use mission statements to hold feet to the fire." Building a respectful workplace, she says, means modeling the behavior that you'd like to see in others. It can be less abrasive to inquire about "what's working around here?" and "how do we want to be treated?" instead of pointing fingers of blame to improve the work environment.

...A challenge often is "to break the denial about the source of their problem," Namie says. There is a tendency to fear a problem executive, or people in power "have liked them so long" that dismissal seems preposterous. "Friendships and relationships trump productivity and fairness," he says.

"There is a huge joint interest in solving this problem," Olson says, who notes that "most employees start a job enthusiastic, but we suck the life out of people instead of nourishing" them


Shannon Munford said...

Anger Management Classes might be a good reccomendation for valuable employees and supervisiors who display aggressive behaviors.

Shannon Munford M.A.

quhquh said...

It's not just about anger - some (most?) of the "finest" bullies in higher education wear smiles most of the time. It's a matter of manipulation and establishing stratified order with those at the bottom denied opportunities or acknowledgment. Forgive me if I am ruffling feathers, but I have found that women are most often "skilled" at this sort of "kind-faced" bullying based on their likes and dislikes, particularly if you are what has been described in this blog as a "target." There is little recourse for situations like this because if you object to the situation in a kind or direct manner, this is considered aggressive and you run the risk of being labeled a problem or a bully.