A bullying boss can hurt a company and its employees

Tuesday, June 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The worked as a secretary in the regional office of a federal agency for eight years. It was a nice job except for one problem: Her boss was an "absolute monster."

He routinely screamed and cursed, but the worst incident took place three years ago.

"I did something I'd done 10,000 times before," the Bedford woman recalls. "We had a call come in from Washington, and all I did was transfer the call. But he didn't like the lady who called."

He called her into his office and ordered her to look in a mirror. "I want you to remember what your head looks like, because if you ever do that again, your head won't be on your shoulders anymore," the man said.

She couldn't quit because her husband did contract work, and her $36,000-a-year salary was their only secure income; they also needed insurance benefits. Finally, she got a transfer within the agency. She was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety attacks. A complaint she filed resulted in an internal investigation. But the supervisor kept his position.

"He gets the job done fastest for the least amount of money. He makes his superiors in Washington look good," she says. "So instead of stopping this man, they turn their heads and look the other way."

They're called many names - "tyrant," "ego-maniac," "jerk," to cite a few.

But these bullies have one thing in common: They consider the workplace a jungle and employees their prey. Now businesses are increasingly coming under pressure to tame them.

"Clearly, there's a lot that can be done from an organization's perspective to assure that these kinds of oppressive people aren't allowed to continue abusing others in the workplace," says Dr. Joel H. Neuman, an associate professor of management at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

"We spend more time at work than with our families. How we're treated there is very important," says Dr. Loraleigh Keashly, a social psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The latest high-profile bullying case involved a workplace of a different sort - the basketball court. Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach at Indiana University, was accused of choking a player during practice.

The tempestuous 59-year-old Mr. Knight recently kept his job after agreeing to a strict code of personal conduct. He must demonstrate civility in public and make no physical contact with his players or IU staff.

In 29 years at IU, Mr. Knight won three NCAA titles and 11 Big Ten titles. But a university investigation found that he had shown a pattern of uncontrollable anger and confrontational behavior with his players and others. In one incident, he threw a vase in the direction of his secretary and cursed at her.

The Knight case can serve as a lesson for organizations to curtail workplace bullies - no matter how valuable they are, says David Peterson, vice president of individual coaching services for the Minneapolis-based consulting firm Personnel Decisions Inc.

"Why did people let . . . [Mr. Knight] get away with it for so long? It has to start with some kind of organizational responsibility," says Mr. Peterson.

That won't be easy. The tough, intimidating boss has always been an icon of American business culture.

"Some people have a tendency to believe that abusive treatment is almost part of the makeup of a person who's effective and successful in business. You know, the macho, dog-eat-dog syndrome. It's absolutely the classic stereotype," Dr. Neuman says.

The problem is inflamed in the current atmosphere of corporate downsizings and mergers. Traditional bonds of loyalty between employer and employee are frayed, anxiety is rampant, and workers feel pitted against each other during rounds of job cuts.

"With this merger mania, with the constant downsizing, with the constant jockeying of staff, the message is really getting clearer in corporate America: Your gain will be at someone else's expense. It's a very hostile world," says Dr. Gary Namie, a California psychologist. He and his wife, Dr. Ruth Namie, have written The Bully At Work (Sourcebooks, $14.95).

The couple also launched the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying to raise awareness about the issue. On their Web site, www.bullybusters.org, workers share stories of abuse from bosses or other co-workers.

Dr. Namie defines workplace bullying as "deliberate, repeated, hurtful mistreatment of one by another. It's got to be hurtful - emotional or physical."

Costly bullies

The economic and emotional costs of bullying are high - both to the worker and the organization. Studies have shown that repeated incidents of bullying can hurt the bottom line, Dr. Neuman says. Such behavior often leads to a decline in employee productivity, an increase in medical leave and turnover, and costly acts of sabotage. Lawsuits arising from an abusive work environment could also cost companies dearly.

And workplace bullying can be devastating to the workers targeted by bullies.

Readers of The Dallas Morning News' Web site, dallasnews.com, were asked to provide stories about workplace bullies. Here is a sample of responses:

A woman thought she had found the perfect job with a Dallas-based telecommunications business - until she met her supervisor.

"She cussed, chastised employees in front of each other, called them incompetent behind their backs to their peers and blamed all mistakes on those who worked for her . . ." the employee writes.

"She once altered a project piece of mine just hours before a big meeting. She was in such a hurry she made several typos and other careless mistakes. She blamed me for the mistakes after the meeting even though I had a soft and hard copy of my work."

After three weeks, she could no longer take the abuse and quit.

"I cannot believe that people are allowed to treat others like this in organizations today. I also can't believe that management doesn't recognize what high levels of turnover can indicate. Even though she had several of her direct reports complain, she is still gainfully employed and her department suffers as a direct result. It was a great job and it is the abuse that has kept me away from it."

A man who worked in the information technology department of a company was continually berated by his boss. "He would verbally emulate Coach Bob Knight," the man says. He would also call the employee about noncritical tasks on holidays and weekends, threaten him with same-day firing and take credit for work done by the employee.

"I regret not documenting e-mails, etc., to expose this sick behavior," the man writes.

Abuse survey

These aren't isolated incidents, researchers say. A recent survey of 930 employees in Michigan showed that one in five reported being "significantly mistreated" in the past year, says Dr. Keashly, who worked on the study.

Dr. Keashly's list of emotionally abusive behaviors ranged from yelling and swearing to talking down at employees. Workplace bullies also tend to flaunt their status, give employees the silent treatment, make them scapegoats for others' errors, put down workers in front of others, exclude colleagues from important activities or meetings, and use threatening gestures.

"The more people reported being exposed to these negative behaviors, the more likely they were to have experienced health problems, to have a greater desire to leave their jobs and to be less satisfied with their jobs," Dr. Keashly says.

Are people just being too sensitive? Dr. Keashly rejects the notion: "How much can you do to dismiss that? Is 20 percent of the working population too sensitive? "

What is the employer's responsibility when it comes to workplace bullying?

Currently, the law doesn't specifically provide relief to workers from abusive workplace behavior, except in cases of sexual harassment or racial discrimination, says David Yamada, associate professor of law at Suffolk University Law School.

Mr. Yamada is drafting a proposal that he hopes could could form the basis for state laws providing protection against workplace bullying

"Most people would naturally assume that the abusive behavior at work is not only wrong but that there would be legal protection. [But] a lot of state courts have held that workers' compensation prevents them from bringing a lawsuit."

Meanwhile, management experts encourage organizations to act quickly to prevent workplace bullying. "If you simply ignore the negative behavior going on, you're condoning it. You're perpetuating it," Dr. Neuman says.

Bullies are not always the psycho-pathological monsters they are popularly portrayed to be, Dr. Keashly says.Bullying can be a response to extreme stress and frustration or a lack of supervisory skills.

"Many people move up in organizations, and they are never trained how to supervise. So you teach them how to be a better manager."

That's where Mr. Peterson comes in. He provides one-on-one coaching to problem managers.

"Mostly I get called in to work with high-potential people. You have a guy who's a tremendous asset to the company, but he's leaving a trail of human debris in his wake," Mr. Peterson says. "They're so successful with their talent, that they never develop other aspects."

Many times, the bully is resistant to change because he's convinced his bullying behavior is responsible for his success, Mr. Peterson says. Often he or she has been "promoted over nice people time and time again. So the bully says, 'I've been rewarded for this behavior.' There's not enough insight into the damage their causing."

Mr. Peterson focuses on teaching better communication skills.

"What you have to do is teach them how to be clear, direct and powerful in a respectful way. One of the principals is to attack the issue and not the person."

He also uses role models, such as Jack Welch, the recently retired chairman of General Electric, who are tough, assertive but respectful of employees.

"The irony is, most of the bullies I work with are good people. They've just learned a lousy way to manage. If you can show them a way to build loyalty and stronger teams that get results, why wouldn't they try it?"


For more information on the problem of workplace bullies and anger management, consult:

The Bully at Work, by Dr. Gary Namie and Dr. Ruth Namie (Sourcebooks, $14.95). Just published in May by the Namies, who began their Campaign Against Workplace Bullying three years ago. Ruth is a psychotherapist and Gary has worked as an organizational consultant and management professor. Their book includes typical profiles of bullies and their targets and "bullybusting" strategies. Visit www.bullybusters.org.

Brutal Bosses and Their Prey, by Dr. Harvey A. Hornstein (Riverhead Books, $12). Published in 1997, this book was one of the first to look at the phenomenon. The Columbia University psychology professor identifies types of abusive behaviors and how to overcome abuse in the workplace.

Beyond Anger: A Guide for Men, by Dr. Thomas J. Harbin (Marlowe & Co., $14.95). Dr. Harbin, a clinical psychologist, has worked with many men who have struggled with anger in the workplace. His book includes specific exercises for managing anger at work and at home.