Beating a bullying boss

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There are three ways to deal with office bullies. You can ignore them, confront them or report them to the boss.

But what do you do when the bully is your boss?

Delicate situation. You like your job. The money’s good. The benefits are terrific. If only this creep would cease invading your head space. Odds are that isn’t going to happen.

Once a bully has targeted you, he — or she, since bullying is an equal-opportunity trait — rarely moves on voluntarily. It’s up to you to shake the bully off. Unfortunately, it’s the bully that usually wins.

While a recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that most office bullying is worker-to-worker, dealing with an aggressor can be particularly dicey when the bully is in charge at the office.

“Our data indicates that 70 percent of targets lose their jobs once they’ve been targeted; 33 percent leave voluntarily for health reasons and 36 percent are constructively discharged,” says Gary Namie, co-founder and president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The real risk is in being targeted in the first place.”

Namie’s organization defines bullying as “repeated, health-endangering mistreatment” through acts of commission (hostile verbal or nonverbal communication or interference) or omission (withholding resources such as time, information, training, equipment or support) aimed at fomenting chaos and divisiveness within the ranks.

Bully bosses come in a variety of styles, but each seeks the same goal: absolute control. They may spout the company line about teamwork and consensus building, but in practice, they’re always looking out for numero uno. They’re not after a win-win; they’re out to win, period. In their view, everyone within the organization is either above or below them. Guess which way the abuse rolls?

Sam Horn, author of “Take the Bully By the Horns: Stop Unethical, Uncooperative or Unpleasant People from Running and Ruining Your Life,” says bullies select their victims the way any predator does — they prey on the easiest targets.

“Bullies will pick on nice people. They operate on a risk-reward ratio. They throw their stuff out there and test to see if they can knock you off balance, fluster you. If you are weak or just swallow it, the bully owns you,” says Horn.

Namie says that while heavily profit-driven enterprises and time-intensive industries such as the news media frequently breed tyrants, bullies also are prevalent in such people-oriented fields as health care and teaching, where nice, well-intentioned targets abound.

Here’s how to deal with one of life’s least-pleasant scenarios.

1. Avoid becoming a target.

Got a bully for a boss? The first step is to avoid becoming a target.

Paul Babiak, a New York industrial-organizational psychologist and co-author of “Snakes in Suits,” advises against trying to “help” or befriend a bully; their aggressive behavior hides an inner need that is well beyond reason.

“Studies indicate that bullies are actually inept people who are not talented, maybe have a rage against themselves that they express outward toward people they see as being better than they are. It’s from a point of weakness that they express their violence toward others.”

“Most people self-correct, they will even apologize,” adds Horn. “Bullies never self-correct, and the reason is they hold everyone else responsible for their behavior. To change, you have to be willing to take responsibility for your own actions, and bullies do not. All of our reasonable, logical, compassionate attempts to get along with a bully will backfire.”

To avoid being targeted, Horn suggests emulating the cat confronted by a dog: If the cat runs, the dog runs after it. But if the cat doesn’t budge, the dog walks around it.

“In any office, you will find there are people the bully picks on and people the bully leaves alone,” says Horn. “When we reverse the risk-reward ratio, when we give as good as we get, we’re up to the bully’s test.

“The only thing a bully respects is people who won’t be bullied.”

2. Name the problem.

You’ve got a problem and it’s not your fault or doing. Your boss is a bully. Face up to the fact that although you had no part in becoming their target, it is up to you to end this destructive mambo.

“Naming it legitimizes it,” says Namie. “You know if you name it that it’s not you.”

3. Take some time off.

If the abuse has been ongoing, a doctor may even order this for your own good. If not, take vacation time.

“When you’re flooded with emotion, when you’re full of anger and outrage and you’re hurt, all you want to do is convince people you’re wounded,” Namie says. “You’re not going to get any help if you come at them with emotion.”

Use the time to see a mental health counselor, check your physical health, check your legal options (a quarter of bullying cases have some discrimination components that may strengthen your case) and gather your thoughts.

4. Start a journal.

Without documentation, employees tend to get nowhere when challenging superiors. Chart the five Ws: who, what, when, where and witnesses.

“If you don’t, it’s your word against theirs and any decision-maker will not be able to take action,” says Horn. “Often the decision-makers don’t like whistleblowers and are often intimidated themselves by this individual and are not eager to deal with them.

“The good thing is, if you report with documentation, most organizations are mandated to follow up because if they do not, they are liable. It’s one of your only sources of power.”

5. Expose the bully.

When your case is solid, expose the bully. You don’t want to do this directly, says Namie, but at least two levels up the organization; that is, the bully boss’s boss.

“This is where you make the unemotional business case that the bully is too expensive to keep,” he says. “Our success stories are coming from these multilayer corporate structures where there is somebody high enough above that did not bring the person on board and does not owe them any personal loyalty.”

Warning: Do not confront the bully.

“That’s what everybody tells you; it’s a clash of personalities, work it out between yourselves,” says Namie. This rarely works.

Even more frustrating is that there’s no law against workplace bullying — yet. Namie’s organization has launched a grassroots effort to enact anti-bullying statutes in states and provinces across North America. So far, Quebec is the only jurisdiction to adopt psychological harassment legislation.

And where the bully boss is the top banana, you may have little choice but to move on. The loss rate on court cases for intentional infliction of emotional distress is 95 percent, Namie says.

In these cases, the employee has to decide, all other things considered, whether the job really is worth keeping. If the answer is “no,” it’s time to acquaint yourself with a headhunter.

The “Survivor” factor

The courts and the corporate boardroom also have been slow to recognize that bully behavior batters the bottom line. The bureau director of a federal agency recently called on Namie to ferret out a bully boss, but when he isolated him, the director refused to remove him because “he’s a great conversationalist and a lunch buddy.”

Do you wonder if we will see an end to bully bosses anytime soon? Horn says the answer may be staring us in the face every day.

“When you watch TV, you see kids bad-mouthing their parents. You see shows like ‘Survivor’ and the reality shows where the more aggressive and manipulative and conniving you are, the more you are rewarded. We are growing up in a culture where ‘dissing’ each other is the norm.

“Even laugh tracks. Remember ‘The Weakest Link?’ The host would ridicule the contestants and everyone was laughing en masse at this individual and they were just supposed to buck up and take it. Boy, are our values getting confused when this is held up as an example!”