Workplace bullies

A lady executive screams and curses as she berates her assistant for doing what she considers incompetent work. Her voice reverberates through the hallways, sending hapless staff scurrying to their cubicles lest they be targeted next.

A clique of call center agents takes its usual afternoon smoking break. A workmate overhears the group’s conversation, obviously intended for his hearing: “Have you ever seen a more stupid-looking get-up as this guy’s? You’d think he came from a refugee camp or something. Ha, ha, ha!” The workmate finds it almost impossible to go near the group without hearing snide and hurtful comments.

What is common about these incidents? They are part of a worsening workplace concern referred to as workplace bullying. Organizational researchers Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts of the Project for Wellness and Work-Life define workplace bullying as "a combination of tactics in which numerous types of hostile communication and behavior are used.”

A survey by the US-based Workplace Bullying Institute revealed the following as the five most common behaviors of workplace bullies: Falsely accused someone of "errors" not actually made (71 percent); stared, glared, was nonverbally intimidating and was clearly showing hostility (68 percent); discounted the person's thoughts or feelings ("oh, that's silly") in meetings (64 percent); used the "silent treatment" to "ice out" and separate from others (64 percent); and exhibited presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group (61 percent).

I am not aware of a similar survey in the Philippines but informal surveys among my students indicate that fits of rage targeted at subordinates are fairly common locally. When I ask them why the behavior continues, the answer is most often: “He’s the boss. What can you do?” The answer is not surprising. In some corporations, subordinates accept being treated as little more than slaves by their bosses.

Why such tolerance for office tyrants? One possibility is because the media romanticizes bullies. In the movie “The Devil wears Prada”, Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep) is a powerful, demanding and manipulative fashion magazine editor-in-chief and Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is her naïve and eager-to-please assistant. Andy struggles to meet every wish and whim of Miranda, in the office and out of it. She brings Miranda her coffee at just the right temperature at the right time, produces copies of the latest Harry Potter for Miranda’s daughters before the book has been published, and steps over a colleague to attend a Paris show upon Miranda’s request, all with scarcely any words of encouragement from Miranda. In the end, Andy recovers her senses and literally walks away from the job that was slowly destroying her self-image and relationships.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Fortune Magazine ran an annual search for “ America ’s Toughest Bosses”. Recognized for this unusual “honor” in 1993 was Steve Jobs, well-known co-founder of Apple Computers, and, then, 38-year-old head of Next Computer. Fortune reported that in the late 80’s, two Next engineers had been toiling for 15 months, including weekends and Christmas break, on a type of chip that had never been attempted before. For their efforts, Jobs reportedly berated them in front of the whole company during an off-site meeting for not working faster. The engineers finished the project out of pride and resigned thereafter. On Jobs’ behalf, some Next employees said that he was making an effort to change his personality towards becoming more of a consensus manager.

In a slow job market, it’s understandable that people may not want to walk away from an abusive work environment. But victims should realize that workplace hostility affects their health. The Workplace Bullying Institute advises that “chronic, unremitting stress causes problems at the cellular level that can prematurely age a person and render him or her vulnerable to diseases that kill. … If your workplace has begun to cause you health problems, escape to live. Your body has already begun the process of decline and is aging you faster than necessary. Put your health first.”

If victims can’t walk away from bullying, they will have to stand up to it. A private but assertive conversation with the bully requesting for better treatment is worth considering. A willing victim is an easy target and the workplace, after all, should be a venue for professional give-and-take. A next logical step is to use office mediation mechanisms and only after that, the grievance system.

Work is usually challenging enough without having to deal with abusive treatment. But human nature and market pressures being what they are, bullies will appear every now and then. Managers must provide reasonable protection for their workers from this growing threat to productivity and mental health in the workplace.