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Workplace Bullying

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Workplace bullies. We’ve all experienced them at one time or another.

Maybe you’ve seen or heard a coworker being bullied, or you have heard water cooler gossip about a coworker that “everyone” seems to know about, or maybe you are one of the 96 percent of American employees who have personally experienced workplace bullying.

“Bullies are predators who carefully analyze potential targets.”

~ Margaret R. Kohut (2007)

Bullies, especially serial bullies, are abusers, plain and simple. Whether they are in a schoolyard, at home, or at work, bullies abuse, and most people who abuse do so because they like the feeling of power it gives them at being in control of another person. Workplace serial bullying rarely starts with a bang. Instead, it is a subtle process of intimidation and criticism that slowly increases over time, slowly destroying the bully’s target.

Workplace bullying is the repeated mistreatment of one or more persons (targets) in the workplace by one or more people. This mistreatment is harmful to the target both emotionally and physically (health-wise). Serial bullying is the deliberate targeting of an individual with the malicious intent of complete destruction of the target’s professional career; the bullying may go on for months or even years.

While serial bullies are attracted to positions of authority and trust, not every bully holds these positions. Serial bullies mercilessly bully their targets and, when one target leaves, it’s not long before they have the next target lined up in their crosshairs. In her book [kindle edition]  titled The Complete Guide to Understanding, Controlling, and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at Work: A Guide for Managers, Supervisors, and Employees, Margaret R. Kohut (2007) points out that the ultimate goal of the serial bully is the complete demise of a target’s professional career and that nothing less than total destruction is acceptable to the bully.

The serial bully employs tactics harder to prove than, say, physical abuse; they use emotional blackmail and tend to abuse the authority that comes with their job. Ending a bully’s reign of terror doesn’t change the bully, nor does it mean they have finally taken responsibility for what they have said and done. Serial bullies do not change their emotions or what they think about the inferiority of others when they are caught; their behavior changes only because they were caught.

Serial bullying is a lifelong dedication to a lifestyle. Most adult bullies have practiced their behavior from the time they were children. While most children will grow out of this behavior by the time they start school, serial bullies do not. By the time they become adults, bullying is a well-practiced strategy. Bully Online, in an article titled Serial Bullies’ Attitudes to Life and Work, states that a serial bully knows exactly what he or she is doing but does it anyway because they do not expect to be challenged.

Employers pay a steep cost when they do not take steps to stop bullying within a company. Margaret R. Kohut (2007) in her book titled The Complete Guide to Understanding, Controlling, and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at Work: A Guide for Managers, Supervisors, and Employees lays out just some of the costs a company can face:

  • $200-$300 billion lost each year by American businesses due to job stress.
  • Training replacement employees is expensive.
  • Worker’s compensation payments increase.
  • Health insurance rates rise due to stress-related illness in the company.
  • Civil lawsuits must be litigated; legal fees and court costs add up; if the company loses, they must pay actual and punitive damages.

Bullies don’t like being faced down, but they will back off and look elsewhere if a person they decide to target stands up to them and refuses to be intimidated. Looking elsewhere for a new target is much preferable to being faced down. Serial bullies look for specific signs of vulnerability in a potential target. Signs they look for include:

  • Lack self-confident.
  • Make self-effacing statements that indicat insecurity or over-reliance on others.
  • Meek way of speaking.
  • Tolerates being interrupted.
  • Acts meek and unresisting.
  • Cowers or tolerates invasion of personal space when they stand too close, hover, or touch the other person.

Targets come in all shapes and sizes. Bright, skilled, and independent people are often the ones targeted by serial bullies. Here are a few statistics from Margaret R. Kohut’s book titled The Complete Guide to Understanding, Controlling, and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at Work: A Guide for Managers, Supervisors, and Employees about bully target profiles:

  • 21% have a graduate or professional degree.
  • 63% have some college or an undergraduate degree.
  • 50% of employers that tolerate bullying are in private sector businesses.
  • 33% of employers are government agencies.
  • 19% of employers are nonprofit organizations.

Company managers at the upper management level can catch signs that warn of problems below them if they keep their eyes open and their finger on the pulse of the company. Mid-level management positions are where these bullies tend to gravitate toward. Because there is generally very little contact between upper management and lower level employees, it is very easy for the mid-level manager to disparage the target; the target has no chance to defend himself.

Upper management will seldom make the effort to investigate the validity of the allegations made by the bully, preferring instead just to let the bully take care of the situation. This laissez-faire attitude by upper management is how companies come to foster a breeding ground for bullying. In companies that seem to be conducive to bullying, employees feel there is little use even attempting to bring bullying behavior to the attention of upper management so, instead, they hunker down and attempt to endure the bullying or they eventually leave.

Many companies that do, in fact, have instances of serial bullying going on, either refuse to believe it is happening in their company, honestly don’t know it is happening, or create an atmosphere conducive to bullying. In most cases, if/when bullying is brought to their attention, denial at the corporate level is the most common response.

Corporate denial is a major encouragement to serial bullies. Whenever a company harbors a serial bully, there will always be someone around willing to back up the bully and deny it is happening, either because they are completely ignorant, the desire for self-preservation is very strong, or to gain corporate political advantage. If a target does screw up their courage enough to report their bullying colleague, almost every time they will hear phrases such as:

  • Are you sure this is really what is going on?
  • This isn’t possible!
  • She/he isn’t a bully!
  • I find this hard to believe. Are you sure you aren’t imagining it?
  • It is ‘just your perception’.
  • I cannot find any evidence at all to corroborate your allegations.

These phrases, uttered by employers to bullying targets, are frustrating and disheartening to hear. Many times, the target walks away questioning themselves, wondering if they imagined it all or feeling like they are going crazy, believing they should never have said anything in the first place because they just knew no one would believe them. Serial bullies, and all abusers whatever their chosen form of abuse, arrogantly count on this happening to the target, often telling them that no one would ever believe them.

Corporate denial is very difficult to overcome. Regardless of how powerful and compelling the evidence is or how well drafted the anti-bullying policy might be, employers who deny that bullying exists will become entrenched in their belief, unwilling to change their view for any reason.

If a company, either upper management or the Human Resource department, begin to see signs of potential problems within the company, they can take action. There are a number of signs that can trigger management to investigate to find out what might be going on:

  • Frequent staff turnover.
  • Frequent absences.
  • Higher than usual numbers of stress ‘breakdowns’.
  • Early retirements.
  • Overuse of disciplinary procedures.
  • Large number of grievances by employees.
  • Frequent firing of employees.

Are these signs always indicative of a possible bully at work? No, but they can sure trigger an alarm bell if management, or the Human Resource department pay attention to the potential red flags.

Serial bullies seem to bear charmed lives in the workplace. One study, conducted by Gary Namie in 2014 and located on the Internet at Workplace Bullying Institute titled 2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, suggests that bullies seem to enjoy increased job security with the target being the one to leave, because they can no longer tolerate the treatment, instead of the bully. These serial bullies seem to enjoy virtual immunity from correction or discipline and seem to be able to explain just about anything, blaming others and distracting attention from the real issues.

Let’s suppose you got brave and reported the serial bully to your supervisor or the Human Resource department in your company. When a bully is held to account for his or her actions, they will respond with denial, followed by retaliation and feigned victimhood. This is a deliberate, learned strategy that has a very clear purpose. In an article titled Serial Bullies’ Attitudes to Life and Work on the Bully Online website as well as an article by Peter Kropoktin on the Bullied Academics blog titled The Serial Bully, these three responses are described very well:

  • Denial – Instinctive reaction when confronted.
  • Retaliation – Diverts attention away from bully.
  • Feigning Victimhood – Manipulates through emotions.

Denial – Instinctive reaction when a workplace bully is confronted. Sometimes the denial is direct and robust, other times the bully avoids discussion of the matter; never gives a straight answer; deliberately misses the point; creates distractions and diversions.

  • Variation includes trivialization of the matter or offers a fresh start, such as in “This is so trivial it’s not worth talking about.” or “I don’t know why you’re so intent on dwelling on the past.” or even “Look, what’s past is past, I’ll overlook your behavior and we’ll start afresh.”
  • False conciliation by trivialization is nothing more than the bully abdicating all responsibility for any damage.

Retaliation – This is an extension of denial designed to divert attention away from the bully. Often this retaliation takes the form of counter-allegations based on distortions or fabrications that include lying, deception, duplicity, hypocrisy, and blame.

  • Deliberately misconstrues behavior as assertiveness instead of what it really is, aggression. Passive aggression is used by a serial bully when others are present.
  • Non-specific allegations to prevent the target from preparing a defense.
  • May use discovery of ‘misconduct’—this could be something serious or very trivial; sometimes the alleged misconduct is old or very old.
  • Might be a grain of truth to the allegation but no evidence misconduct happened; just that misconduct was a possibility.
  • No substantive evidence will be available to support the assertion of specific misconduct having been committed.
  • Allegations that job performance is below standard, necessitating a performance review; the bully, or someone acting on their behalf, will conduct the review, documenting a list of the target’s mistakes; target is unable to have any say in what is documented and the disciplinary panel will not be allowed to see any positive performance reports. The panel is presented with a very negative overall picture of the target’s performance.

Feigning Victimhood – Manipulates people through their emotions, especially using guilt, and can include bursting into tears, which most people are uncomfortable dealing with.

  • Often utters phrases such as: “I’m the one being bullied here.” “I am deeply offended!” “You don’t know how hard it is for me!” or even “You think you’re having a hard time…!”
  • Enacts a ‘poor me’ melodrama by displaying indulgent self-pity, feigned indignation, histrionics, pretending to be devastated or deeply offended.
  • Allows them to avoid accepting responsibility for actions or words as well as avoid answering questions.

One final tactic used by the serial bully is to exploit the often explosive anger a victim feels when the bully successfully feigns victimhood. They will ruthlessly use that explosive anger to their advantage and to further their own agenda of complete professional destruction for their target.

The one emotion all abusers exploit (serial bullies included) is an unusual level of anger in their target. Provoking a display of pent-up anger allows the bully to play the master stroke of portraying the victim as the villain. Maybe the target has been bullied for many months or years and lost their temper just that one time but that one time is all the bully needs. Now they can point to the ‘emotional instability’ or ‘irrational’ behavior of the target and further paint the target as unsuitable to be employed at the company.

Being targeted by a serial bully can only end in disaster for the target. Serial bullies deliberately pick their target and, when they finally drive that target out of the company, pick their next target to begin destroying.