Is an office bully ruining your job?
love your job, but are thinking about quitting. It's not the pay,
the commute or even the occasional weekend hours. It's that guy
in the next cubicle.
He's the office bully and his constant emotional,
psychological and sometimes physical abuse has turned making a living
into a living hell.
Office bullies create a dysfunctional workplace, says
Gary Namie, a psychologist and founder of the nonprofit Campaign
Against Workplace Bullying. Such workers can even destroy a
company, he notes, through turnover, lost productivity, litigation
and health costs.
And, it seems, bullies aren't going away. One in four
companies has experienced workplace bullying in the past year, according
to recent research from the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health. NIOSH reports that most incidents of bullying
appear to be done by employees against one another.
Crossing the line
Bullies are a classic case of nature meets nurture, according to
Karlin Sloan, president of The
Propeller Group, a New York City company that specializes in
"Certain behaviors are tough behavior, but are
perfectly acceptable and appropriate, but bullying is where you
draw the line," says Sloan. "All bullying behavior comes
from something that's not being expressed authentically.
"It's anger or fear feelings that are just being
put out on whoever is the target. They displace all their anger
on you and that is absolutely unfair."
Invite this troubled person into a corporate culture
that either ignores or tacitly approves aggressive behavior and
you could have a bully on your hands.
"We define bullying as health-endangering mistreatment.
If it's not that, it's something short of that. It's office politics
and maneuvering and gamesmanship," says Namie. "Most bullies
are not psychopaths, they are not wackos, they are not mentally
ill. They are just aggressive people who are very astute at reading
Although workplace bullies
may take several forms, they share a common goal: to advance
their position in the company at the expense of a co-worker, often
called the target.
Are you a target?
The most destructive thing about office bullies, says Namie, is
that they tend to target co-workers who are the best and brightest
"It's much different than school-yard bullying,"
he says. "This target isn't the kid with the Coke-bottle glasses."
Instead, workplace bullies tend to drive out colleagues
they view as threats: those who are technically competent, independent,
possess good social skills, and have strong ethics (and thus may
Targets tend to be reluctant to report bullying, primarily
for fear of retribution, but also because they run the risk of being
labeled a whiner or a snitch, or losing their job outright if the
bully is their superior.
There is little evidence that workplace bullies go
on to commit workplace violence. According to the Center for Disease
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, co-workers commit
fewer than one in 10 acts of workplace violence.
Bully targets, however, are another story. If the
stress of facing a tormenter at work every day becomes too much,
the bullied may eventually snap.
"Most targets are as equally likely to commit
suicide as violence to others," says Namie. "They turn
inward, they blame themselves, they become depressed, they have
post-traumatic stress. It's more like domestic violence. They will
often say they've been raped, intellectual rape."
Beating the bully
If you're a bully's target, what can you do?
First, report it. If it's a co-worker, go to your
boss. If it's your
boss, move up the management chain. And make it clear that it's
not simply a misunderstanding or an interpersonal conflict.
Even if the bullying is not illegal under current
workplace legislation, Namie says companies can move swiftly against
it. Employers should bring the bully behind closed doors and call
him on his behavior, making it clear that his job may be in jeopardy
if it continues.
But don't join your boss' conversation with the bully.
"Traditional conflict resolution is based on
rationality. Bullies are not rational," Namie says. "What
they will do is sit right in that meeting and lie.
"In fact, they will come to that meeting with
their case made that they've been singled out, they've been picked
on, they've been discriminated against."
A company also can use practical, day-to-day business
practices to deal with bullies. Does your office have an anti-harassment
policy? If so, it could be revised to make it an omnibus policy
covering all forms of harassment, not just the illegal ones.
And, if these remedies fail, a firm can usually make
a valid case for the bullying employee's dismissal by documenting
the behavior just as is done for a nonperforming employee.
No legal recourse -- yet
Namie's organization is working to pass an anti-bullying law similar
to child abuse and domestic violence legislation. Until that happens,
bullies will remain a dark and destructive force in the workplace.
"OSHA sticks to physical safety. British law
addresses both physical and psychological safety in the workplace,"
he says. "In America, psychological safety is for pansies.
The mentality is, 'Get tough, get a thicker skin, that's why they
call it work.'"
But this tough-it-out approach doesn't work for long,
for the bullied employees or the company.
"Just because it's not illegal, don't ignore
it," warns Namie. "That's how managers and owners fall
into a trap. They say, 'We don't have a policy that covers it, it's
not illegal, just go away.'
"That doesn't mean it's not an issue. That just
means it hasn't been addressed by the law."
Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor
based in Florida.
-- Updated: Aug. 6, 2004