Rebecca Gray is a freelance blogger and an information security specialist for Backgroundchecks.org, a website that helps employers learn about the ins and outs of a thorough background check. Rebecca specializes in various types of information screenings, such as pre-employment background checks, criminal records, security etc. She writes for NoBullying about how to stop a bullying boss.
Bullying… it’s not just for school kids any more. Actually, it never was just for school kids. The sad truth is that some people never outgrow the need to bully, and bullying happens in the adult world all the time – including the workplace. It’s bad enough when coworkers bully each other, but when the boss is a bully, the problem is even worse.
Bullying Boss: A long-neglected problem
Most of us are pretty well educated about school bullying, particularly since tragic stories about its most devastating effects have been in the news so frequently in recent years. Fortunately there are many resources these days to help combat the problem: advocacy groups, forums, and web sites, not to mention celebrity spokespeople. All serve to make the public aware of the problem and motivate people to take action to prevent bullying and help those who are being bullied.
What is not being discussed nearly enough is that the adult versions of bullying can be every bit as devastating as the junior versions – particularly workplace bullying, as the victim’s livelihood can be at stake, as well as his or her physical and emotional health. In addition, the bullied adult usually doesn’t attract the sympathy given to a bullied child, the reasoning being that an adult should just be able to handle things without making a big deal of it.
If you’ve ever been a victim of workplace bullying, however, you know it’s rarely that easy. A civil response often doesn’t work with bullies, and you may not be able to escape the situation by finding another job or getting a transfer. The problem is compounded if it’s the boss who’s the one doing the bullying – a phenomenon that is more common than many people know (or are willing to acknowledge).
Yes, despite a whole generation’s worth of best-selling business books and seminars that teach enlightened management techniques, the bullying boss is far from an extinct species. To the contrary, a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute revealed that 35% of American workers – about 53.5 million people – had directly experienced workplace bullying. Another 15% said they had witnessed bullying in the workplace. Bullying was defined as repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that took the form of intimidation, threats, verbal abuse, humiliation or sabotage.
And according to the survey, about 72% of those were a bullying boss.
Unlike the blatant, sometimes clumsy bullying that kids commit against their peers, bullying by a boss can often take subtle forms that make it difficult to even define as bullying. Certainly there are the loud, obvious bully bosses who throw tantrums, go on tirades, or commit flagrant acts of discrimination or sexual harassment. These are the ones whose misdeeds are clearly worthy of legal action or termination. But many bosses commit more nebulous, insidious acts of bullying. They know how to stay under the radar and get around the laws that exist to protect workers. Some even make a point of seeking out meek victims who are less likely to speak up about the bullying.
But the problem isn’t hopeless. You can fight back a bullying boss – and win. Here are a few tips on how to deal with a bullying boss.
1. Determine if the situation is fixable or worthy of a formal complaint or lawsuit. If your boss repeatedly makes sexual advances, shouts racial epithets at you, physically assaults you, or otherwise creates what is clearly a hostile workplace, you’re probably looking at grounds for a formal complaint with Human Resources, or perhaps even a lawsuit. Of course you need to document the incidents, and it helps to have witnesses – though many bosses are careful only to commit some of their more blatant acts when there aren’t any other witnesses. A large percentage of bullying bosses, however, may fall into the “manageable” category, meaning that you should try to deal with the problem in a more moderate fashion. In a best-case scenario you’ll be able to solve the problem and keep your job.
2. Be compassionate and understanding. Don’t get us wrong. Bullying is never acceptable. But as is the case with abuse in general, most people who are bullies were bullied or abused themselves when they were growing up, and some may still be experiencing abuse or bullying from some source. A little compassion and understanding – and a willingness to look at things from your boss’s point of view – might just help you to be calmer and less reactive, so you can deal with the situation from a position of strength. And don’t forget the magic of positive reinforcement; you don’t want to be a sycophant or insincere, but when your boss does something nice or truly praiseworthy, don’t be stingy with the praise.
3. Learn to be assertive and set boundaries. Back in the 1970s when the “assertiveness” movement first took hold, there were several best-selling pop-psychology books and numerous workshops that taught people how to say “no” and stand up for themselves. A couple of generations later, many people still have problems being assertive (or finding a balance between being assertive and aggressive or non-cooperative). The trick is to make it clear that while you are more than willing to go the extra mile at work, you are nobody’s doormat. Learning to say “no” when your boss makes unreasonable demands can actually earn you that boss’s respect and possibly defuse the bullying impulse.
4. Become an expert at deflecting bullying episodes. Many bosses are episodic bullies who may be Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy/Gal much of the time, but turn into monsters when under stress. If you know your boss’s patterns well enough, perhaps you can act to deflect the episodes, such as doing something to lessen his or her stress – taking on a little extra work, canceling a non-essential meeting. Or at the very least, perhaps you can get out of the way. That doesn’t really solve the problem, but makes it more manageable.
5. Get support– and outside help if necessary. Talk to your co-workers and other managers; chances are that some or most of these people are aware of the problem and may provide guidance or at least moral support. You may need to contact Human Resources or even outside counsel if all else fails. But if you truly need the job and the market doesn’t look so good, perhaps you can simply request a transfer. Just don’t think that you have to suffer in silence, because if you do, the problem will almost certainly just get worse. Don’t ever be afraid to seek help and support.
For more information and links to resources on fighting a bullying boss, visit the web site of the Workplace Bullying Institute, http://www.workplacebullying.org/
If you need more help from Rebecca or if you are facing a bullying boss you can always reach her at [email protected].