Putting a Workplace Bully Back In Line

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Dealing with workplace stress is bad enough without a workplace bully; WebMD tells you how to fight back.

By Martin Downs
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

At first it seemed like a misunderstanding. Emma, who asked not to be identified by her real name, was working as a homeless-services case manager in California. One evening, a co-worker called her at home and said that her supervisor wanted her to file a child abuse report in the case of a young client. Having no reason to suspect abuse, and knowing that filing a false report is illegal, she didn't follow through, and thought nothing of it.

The next day, the supervisor called her into her office and "asked me why I was being insubordinate," Emma says. For her continued refusal to file a report, the supervisor took disciplinary action against her, so she complained to the organization's human resources department.

After her fruitless appeal to HR, "the memos started coming in," she says -- a steady barrage of allegations that, she insists, were either "distortions of conversations" or outright fabrications. Everything she said and did the supervisor turned against her. She even went so far as to try to get Emma's co-workers to make baseless written statements accusing her of racism, but they wouldn't do it.

For the four months that this went on, she says she couldn't sleep at night and felt nauseous all the time. "The kind of job I had was so stressful anyway," she says. Eventually she was fired, although poor performance was not a given reason for her termination. "I had the highest success rate of housing people," she says.

Emma's experience is a classic case of bullying at work. Bullying, by definition, is "ongoing intimidation designed to make someone feel poorly about themselves or about their workplace," says Carol Mills, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Often bullying is dismissed as workplace politics, and in a sense it is cut-throat political gaming. But "when you refer to it as bullying," Mills says, "it makes you realize that it's not just politics, but in fact that there is a target who is victimized by this behavior."

Bullies don't just jockey for advantage in a competitive work environment. They single out someone and make that person's life miserable. Most often, the goal is to force the target out of the workplace, and usually they succeed.

Psychologist Gary Namie, PhD, co-founder and president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, conducted an online survey of 1,000 people who claimed to have been bullied at work, finding that 37% were eventually fired, and 33% quit their jobs.

In a reversal of the typical childhood bullying scenario, in which unpopular and apparently weak kids are picked on most, adult victims in the workplace tend to be very capable and charismatic people. The bully sees them as a threat, and determines to get them out of the picture.

Most workplace bullies are thought to be women -- 58% according to those Namie surveyed -- and so are their targets -- 80% of those surveyed. Bosses are commonly believed to be the bullies in most cases, and in Namie's survey that was true. Seventy-one percent claimed that the bully was a superior.

New data from a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) survey, presented at a psychology conference in July 2004, show that bullying may actually be perpetrated more often by fellow employees. Among those surveyed at 516 organizations where there had been bullying in the past year, about 39% said that in the most recent incident, employees bullied one another, while only about 15% said the bullying involved a supervisor. The people who responded to the survey were bosses and HR representatives, however, and not necessarily those who had been bullied.

Estimated rates of workplace bullying vary, too. The NIOSH survey showed that there had been bullying at one in four workplaces. In a study of National Health workers in the U.K., 38% said they had been targets of bullying in the past year, and 42% said they had seen it happen to others. Another figure often cited puts the rate at one in six in the U.S.

A No-Win Situation

Unfortunately, there is little you can do to stop a bully.

"Once bullying starts, the majority of times you are in a no-win situation," Mills says. Confronting the bully sets you up for retaliation. Trying to ingratiate yourself with the bully only makes you more vulnerable. Hanging in there, taking it on the chin month after month can make you sick.

"A lot of people think, 'Oh, well, I'll just suck it up and deal with it,'" Mills says. But studies consistently show that suffering a bully at work leads to depression and a host of other stress-related health problems.

"It is about health," Namie says. "It's the physician, usually the family practitioner, who catches it." Bullied people may suddenly show a jump in blood pressure, for example, or they may fail to bounce back from colds.

"Once targeted, yes, your life has changed. You have a new job," Namie says. That is to get another job. But before you make your exit, it is worthwhile to try to expose the bully. "Essentially it's nothing more than accountability you seek for your health's sake," he says. "Go out with your dignity intact."

People who fight back are less likely to have lasting trauma, he says. He recommends that you take sick leave immediately and use the time off to begin building a case against the bully. In his book, The Bully at Work, he outlines strategies for doing so, which include calculating the business costs of the bully's behavior, so you can show that the bully "is too expensive to keep," and finding other people who may have been bullied by that person in the past. Chances are you're not the first.

"It was no secret to the other staff that she does this to people," Emma says of her supervisor. She spoke to one woman who told her she'd received the same treatment for over a year.

If you cannot escape the workplace, build your case while the bullying is ongoing. "Document everything," Mills says. Keep every denigrating e-mail or memo, and make a note of every unwritten slight.

"They can be subtle enough that when you try to call them on it after a few times, or if you're not keeping an ongoing record, they can easily explain everything away," she says. "Pattern is really all you have to fall back on."

"Bullies are extremely skilled in communication. They can do the workshop on how to slice and dice and harm," Namie says.

When the bully is a boss, the best bet isn't to take your case to her boss -- who may very well adore the bully, because bullies know how to play the system brilliantly -- but to go as high up the ladder as you can. Take it to an unbiased executive, like a president or a board member. In large organizations, there may be many layers above your tormentor. But in small ones, you may be spitting into the wind because the big boss is the little boss' uncle or sorority sister.

Your Problem, Not the Court's

"Never go to human resources first," Namie says. "They want to help, but they can't."

That's because, unlike sexual harassment and racial or other forms of discrimination, bullying is not against the law, so HR's hands are tied. If there actually happens to be an element of illegal conduct to the bullying, as there sometimes is, then certainly take it to HR. "That will get the employer's attention at least," Namie says. What's more, if you file a discrimination or sexual harassment complaint, and then the bully retaliates, you do have a foothold for legal action.

The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute is trying to get antibullying legislation introduced in the states of California and Washington in 2005, but Namie says activists face an uphill battle. Previous efforts in California and Oklahoma failed. "The political climate is such that extending worker rights is not on any elected official's plate," he says.

Their effort is not without precedent, though. Sweden enacted the world's first law to protect workers against bullying in 1993. In 2004, Quebec, Canada passed a provincial law against "psychological harassment" in the workplace.

Lacking protection under the law, a bullied worker should hope to be supported by co-workers, but they are too often cowed. "Other people are so grateful that it's not them, they keep their mouth shut and their head down," Mills says.

"I think co-workers hold the key," Namie says.

Like anyone who abuses power, bullies bully "because they can," he says. They don't like it when there are consequences to their behavior. If you're not a target of bullying yourself, but you work with someone who is, having the courage to stand up for the victim could help stop it.

Published Aug. 20, 2004.

SOURCES: Carol Mills, assistant professor of communications, University of Alabama at Birmingham. Gary Namie, PhD, president, Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute. The WTBI 2003 Report on Abusive Workplaces. BullyingInstitute.org. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, October 2003. British Medical Journal, April 2003, January 1999. American Journal of Public Health, March 1999. NIOSH news release, July 28, 2004. USA Today, July 28, 2004.

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