The Workplace Bully

“What sort of a woman are you? When this child was born, it seems she was born with your brain, so you have none left.”

These were the words of a manager I once had. Let’s call him “M”. Luckily – for me, that is – these words were spoken by him to his wife, an educated woman but a full time mother, in full hearing and view of a few engineers from work. Those of us, who comprehended what was said, were too stunned to speak. Others probably did not hear, or, out of conditioning or of acute embarrassment, continued picking on snacks as if nothing had happened.

Needless to say this language, this attitude of total disrespect, and an apparent objective to humiliate everyone was not confined to M’s home. They were all duly brought to work, where employees’ parents, their brains, their education etc were all routinely dredged out when there was no context for all this. These verbal assaults were regular, unstinting and conducted in reporting relationships with a clear power imbalance. Reporting to him, I received weekly threats that my next salary would be withheld and that I will lose my job because many were ‘dying to take it, you know’. The consequence was that while I carried on at work as usual, I lost weight and regularly threw up due to distress.

M was an unadulterated, purebred bully.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well simply so that those of you, who suffer in silence, know that it *is* possible to recover from such bullying and come out unscathed and even look back on it as a bad dream. Because there are ways to cope, knowing that there is a time to escalate and there is a time to exit.

Bullying is not pleasant. It can take many forms but always involves some mix of denigration, criticism, humiliation, coercion and insults. It is not always easy to identify a bully. Many bullies employ a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona, have a volatile but manipulative personality, are generally insecure and arrogant, and the biggest test of them all – when questioned directly, either turn into meek mice or deny everything.

The effects of bullying are a veritable mix and none of them is pleasant, for the sufferer of bullying or his/ her family. High levels of stress and anxiety are common as are frequent illnesses, pains, exhaustion, sleeplessness,concentration and other memory related issues, panic attacks, depression and reduced self-esteem.

So how does one deal with a workplace bully? Well here are some lessons I have learnt through my experiences:

* Ascertain the pattern, if you are being bullied. What precipitates these verbal assaults? Are there particular settings? Are there particular times of the year (for instance, heads of sales may be under target pressure by year-end; you do not have to be understanding but it helps to understand the source of the bad behaviours)? The best way is to keep a diary with dates, places, incidents and content of the monologues (almost always). Remember if someone else is losing their head, you do not have to follow their example.

* Try and address it first with the bully. Be specific about the examples you use: the setting, the content of the conversation, the feelings you experienced. Many bullies are essentially insecure people, who do not always do well in 1-to-1 challenges. In many cases, you will find the bully may not apologise but he or she will back down. In other cases, such peace will, alas, not come to pass.

* Thoroughly assess the procedures – if any – in your firm for escalation and formal complaint. Be aware that if the bully is senior enough, many a time, firms will prefer to retain him or her over you.

* Escalate formally, if your organisational context allows and encourages it. Be prepared to stand your ground, especially because escalation procedures often distress those who escalate. Your office ‘friends’ may not want to hang out with you during this time, so make sure to have plenty of support available outside. Be prepared too, that the organisation may ask you to leave and you need to have a back-up, especially if your family depends on you.

* If you are vindicated, good for you! You may have conducted a great signalling exercise within the organisation at great personal cost, but many others may thank you for it. However if you have to leave, make sure the papers are all in order and do not show that there was some performance or individual issues, which blame you. Obtain a clear official reference from the company which certifies your work, designation and duration at the company.

* Next time you see a bully, be prepared to stand up for the bullied. Not everyone is as courageous as you are.

You probably want to know how I coped with M.

Well, I didn’t. I was very young. My company did not have a formal complaints mechanism. I was sapped of all my energy and my self-preservation instinct kicked in. I quit. Upon receiving my resignation, the man, who had assured me that many were lined up to take my job, phoned and asked me why I was leaving, whether it was the money or if the challenge was not enough for someone of my calibre. He tried to cajole me to stay by offering a carrot of a salary revision and offer of a holiday (that I did not take a day off in a year was not brought up). I stayed calm and told him that it was in his interest to let me leave on my terms, because if I were forced to articulate any more than ‘personal reasons’, he might regret it. In Europe, they do not take kindly to mental harassment and bullying, particularly if it involves a male manager and a female subordinate.

I have experienced at least 2 more bullies since then. On both occasions, I was representing my clients’ interests in negotiations, so there was no exit option. On both occasions, I stood up – literally and figuratively – and declared the discussions adjourned until the lost tempers and reason were found. Surprisingly the bullies backed down, apologised and normally scheduled programming resumed.

M continued to build his career within the company and now works for a reputable organisation in the same industry in the USA. I hope he has changed his ways. In the USA, the way to the cleaners may be remarkably short, especially if someone is dragging you all the way up there with a stop-over at the courts…

PS: This post was written mainly because in the comments to my earlier post on mental health, Little Indian asked if I would write something about workplace bullying. I may not have addressed how Indian managers deal with it, but the story I relate above involved an Indian manager (“M”) with an Indian subordinate (me). The story could have taken place anywhere but my main aim was to help you be aware if you or someone else is a victim of bullying. Don’t wait to let the bully destroy you; deal with it.

Late edit: When this post appeared on the now defunct Indian Economy blog, many commenters said it was “self help” and unrelated to the “Indian economy”. A larger number did not think it was an inappropriate post. I then cited a research finding in comments:

In the study to be presented at a conference on management this weekend, almost two-thirds of the 240 participants in an online survey said the local workplace tyrant was either never censured or was promoted for domineering ways.

“The fact that 64.2 percent of the respondents indicated that either nothing at all or something positive happened to the bad leader is rather remarkable — remarkably disturbing,” wrote the study’s authors, Anthony Don Erickson, Ben Shaw and Zha Agabe of Bond University in Australia.

Despite their success in the office, spiteful supervisors can cause serious malaise for their subordinates, the study suggested, citing nightmares, insomnia, depression and exhaustion as symptoms of serving a brutal boss.

The authors advocated immediate intervention by industry chiefs to stop fledgling office authoritarians from rising up the ranks.

“As with any sort of cancer, the best alternative to prevention is early detection,” they wrote.

They faulted senior managers for not recognizing the signs of workplace strife wrought by bad bosses. “The leaders above them who did nothing, who rewarded and promoted bad leaders … represent an additional problem.”

The study will be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, a research and teaching organization with nearly 17,000 members, from Sunday to Wednesday in Philadelphia.

%d bloggers like this: