Bully bosses: Cruel managers make workers feel powerless

Bullying in the workplace not much different than kindergarten, but what are workers to do?

A recent survey indicates 40 per cent of Canadian workers have experienced bullying in the workplace within the past six months. We ask what can be done to stop it.

A recent survey indicates 40 per cent of Canadian workers have experienced bullying in the workplace within the past six months. We ask what can be done to stop it.

Anna is young, reasonably attractive and moderately bright. She has little formal education, but joined a large local retail store out of high school and has risen to the level of assistant department supervisor. It’s a level she’s not likely to surpass in the foreseeable future, for Anna (not her real name) is a bully.

“When I come in for a shift and realize that she’s the supervisor on duty, my heart drops,” says one staffer. “I know she’s going to take any chance she has to make my life miserable. And I’m not the worst off! One time, she called (a member of staff) a wrinkled old hag and said that just having to be around someone that old made her sick . . . I mean, who does that?”

Who, indeed?

According to Jacqueline Power, associate professor of Business at the University of Windsor, a recent survey indicates that about 40 per cent of Canadian workers have experienced bullying in the workplace within the past six months. That compares to 18 per cent of children who report bullying in the schoolyard.

The obvious question, then, is why schoolyard bullying is a high profile issue, but no one talks about bullies in the workplace.

“It’s a lot harder to detect and prove,” says Power.

Still, it exists and can generally be categorized under three headings:

Interpersonal BullyingCalling a person names or telling them they’re stupid. It can also include things like eye rolling, laughing at an employee’s accent, clothing or ethnicity, or any of a thousand other acts that intentionally diminish or shame that person.

Work-related BullyingMinimizing accomplishments and blowing mistakes out of proportion. It can also include withholding information required to do the job and then pouncing when a mistake is made due to that lack of information. In Anna’s case it has included telling lies about some of the staff she supervises; fabricating complaints and reports of misdeeds to cause trouble to anyone who has tried to stand up to her behaviour.

Physical Intimidation Blocking doorways or unnecessarily brushing against a victim, for example.

“Even if the bully is small in stature, it’s their way of indicating that they’re in control,” says Power. “These are nasty, destructive people.”

Still, workplace bullies may be much more than just nasty.

“We have pretty strong indicators that most bullies are what can be classified as ‘sub-clinical psychopaths’,” says Power.

These individuals are cunning, manipulative, and ruthless. Their psychopathy makes it impossible for them to feel any true emotion or empathy toward others, but they do become very adept at mimicking those emotions to cover their true nature.

“They’re masters at disguising who they really are,” says Power. “In fact, they can be quite charismatic, charming and friendly when needs be. In the workplace, we talk about them ‘kissing up and kicking down’.”

In fact, bullies will generally ingratiate themselves to their superiors in the company to the point where complaints of their behaviour are seen as spurious. Often it’s their victims who are labelled as troublemakers or liars.

The protective façade goes beyond kissing up to the boss.

“Bullies will often surround themselves with a group of dupes,” says Power. “They’ll find either like-minded individuals or those with lower self-esteem and cultivate them into a social dominance orientation.”

In essence, that means the bully will create a group of followers who are convinced they are superior to the victims of the bullying. When victims complain, the followers will do anything to support the bully and maintain their own privileged position.

Everything just got worse


Liz (again, not her real name) is a nurse working at a Victoria hospital who knows that phenomenon only too well.

“The senior nurse on my ward was just this horrible, hateful person. She was always so friendly and accommodating to the doctors and administrators, but she’d do things with the patients and other staff . . . it was like Jekyll and Hyde . . . totally unprofessional. I made the mistake of complaining about her and it was like I painted a target on my back. After that, she went out of her way to make sure I messed up on the job. She didn’t tell me about information that might have put patients at risk; and she was willing to do it just to make me look bad. And she had this little gang of other nurses and other staff who supported her right to the end.”

How did Liz resolve the situation? She transferred to a different hospital.

“I’m happy now, but I was just about to quit nursing entirely or take a stress leave,” she says. “My union rep told me I should confront this woman. When I did that, everything just got worse. I had to leave.”

Interestingly, workplace bullies were likely mean little people in school as well.

“Quite possibly,” says Bonnie Leadbeater, a professor of psychology at University of Victoria. “Bullies in the workplace are often people who were part of an ‘aggressive peer network’ as adolescents. The behaviour carries over to their adult lives and can affect not only their work environments, but all aspects of their personal lives as well.”

“It’s who they are,” says Leadbeater. In the workplace, they create a toxic work environment and leave their victims feeling trapped and powerless.”

What can a victim do?

According to Power, there are three main options.

The first is to actively confront the bully’s behaviour through direct confrontation or through a union or supervisor.

“This isn’t generally very effective,” says Power. “Bullies can hide their behaviours so HR departments are often powerless to take action. And we know that if they are confronted, they’ll become more careful, but in the end will escalate the harassment in more secretive ways. They can be relentless. And by the way, they are highly resistant to treatment or modification of behaviour.”

The second option is to shut up and take it. Unfortunately, it’s often the route taken by victims who are afraid of escalating the problem through confrontation.

“That can cause a whole multitude of other problems,” says Robyn Durling, spokesperson for BullyfreeBC, an organization working to get legislation enacted in B.C. to protect workers from workplace bullying. They also help organizations in training staff to create respectful and safe workplaces.

“Enduring workplace bullying can cause mental and physical problems that lead to time lost from work or the inability to return to work at all,” he says. “It’s not an acceptable option.”

The final coping mechanism is one chosen by too many workers: quit.

“It’s not really a realistic choice in today’s job market,” says Power, “but in the absence of legislation protecting workers in B.C. it might be your only option. It’s better than developing the mental and physical problems associated with long-term workplace stress.”

Still, legislation may be coming. It already exists in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario, where workplace bullying is an offence under the law. Similar legislation is under review in Manitoba and throughout the Maritimes.

Last year, NDP labour critic Ray Chouhan introduced a Private Member’s Bill (M217) in the B.C. legislature to address the issue. The bill died on the order paper, but it’s been reintroduced this year.

“It’s a serious problem,” says Chouhan. “I know that (Premier) Christy Clarke spoke about the issue when she was working in radio. If she was sincere about her concern then, she’ll support my bill now,” he says.

Chouhan adds he’s received numerous complaints from people in both the public and private sectors and the stories are horrendous.

“The issue of bullying and harassment is terrible on a personal level, but it goes beyond that,” Chouhan says. “There’s an economic factor at play. People who are bullied often end up quitting, which requires the hiring and training of new staff. Or they go on stress leave, which costs the economy, too. Certainly it hurts productivity. It’s behaviour that we can’t afford.”

What can companies do in the interim?

“They should first establish respectful workplace standards and training,” says Durling of BullyfreeBC. “We need to raise awareness of the issue, just as we did about sexual harassment and racial discrimination. This is just a lot harder to prove.”

That proof is available if HR departments and managers did their job properly, says Power. “They need to look at stress leaves, turnover rates and complaints, and look for common denominators. If one of their staff is getting a lot of complaints, or has a lot of turnover; there is probably a reason,” she says. “They just need to do their job.”

In the meantime, what can the staff suffering under Anna do?

“Find a friend at work,” says Bonnie Leadbeater. “It’s important to have support and the impact of supportive bystanders can be very strong.”

Power has more direct advice. “I tell people to get a tape recorder and tape their interactions with the bully. HR departments and managers can’t ignore hard evidence,” she says. She also suggests that employees can file suit for damages against companies who do nothing to stem the actions of a bully. “You get enough lawsuits being filed and companies will take notice.”

In the end, however, Anna’s staff may take some solace from a final observation from Power. “Bullies tend to be angry, unhappy little people. Their behaviour will ultimately prevent them from lasting success in either business or their personal life.”

It doesn’t do much to help Anna’s co-workers . . . but it may be that being who she is will be Anna’s penalty in life. M