Are Workplace Bullies Sabotaging Your Ability to Compete?

Learn to identify and extinguish problem behavior

Innovation, performance, and healthy communication flourish in a “bully-free” environment.

To succeed in this economic environment, organizations must be able to inspire all levels of employees to be innovative or risk being overtaken by more nimble and creative competitors. In a hyper-competitive global economy, where competition is no longer limited by geography or industry, new formidable competitors can arise seemingly overnight.[1] In such an environment, one of the surest ways for an organization to fail is to tolerate workplace bullying. Bullies not only stifle productivity and innovation throughout the organization, they most often target an organization’s best employees, because it is precisely those employees who are the most threatening to bullies. As a result, enterprises are robbed of their most important asset in today’s competitive economic environment – precious human capital.

The problem with workplace bullying is that many bullies are hard to identify because they operate surreptitiously under the guise of being civil and cooperative. Although workplace bullying is being discussed more than ever before, and there may eventually be specific legislation outlawing such behavior, organizations cannot afford to wait for new laws to eradicate the bullies in their midst. In order to survive, organizations must root out workplace bullying before it squelches their employees’ creativity and productivity, or even drives out their best employees, thus fatally impacting an organization’s ability to compete in this new era. The purpose of this article is to review current research on workplace bullying, to help organizations learn how to identify bullies, and to suggest ways that an organization can eliminate this workplace toxin.

How to Identify Bullying Behavior

Recent commentators have used different ways to describe bullying behavior, but they agree that a bully is only interested in maintaining his or her power and control.[2] Because bullies are cowards and are driven by deep-seated insecurities and fears of inadequacy, they intentionally wage a covert war against an organization’s best employees – those who are highly-skilled, intelligent, creative, ethical, able to work well with others, and independent (who refuse to be subservient or controlled by others).[3] Bullies can act alone or in groups.[4] Bullying behavior can exist at any level of an organization. Bullies can be superiors, subordinates, co-workers and colleagues.[5]

Some bullies are obvious – they throw things, slam doors, engage in angry tirades, and are insulting and rude. Others, however, are much more subtle. While appearing to be acting reasonably and courteously on the surface, in reality they are engaging in vicious and fabricated character assassination, petty humiliations and small interferences, any one of which might be insignificant in itself, but taken together over a period of time, poison the working environment for the targeted individuals.[6]

Bullying is not about being “tough” or insisting on high standards.[7] It is “abusive disrespect.”[8] In Dr. Hornstein’s view bullies fall into 3 types:

Characteristics
ConquerorsOnly interested in power and control and protecting their turf.
They try to make others feel less powerful.
Can act DIRECTLY (e.g. insulting and/or rude words or gestures, [or tones] or INDIRECTLY ( e.g. orchestrating battles and watching others disembowel each other).
PerformersSuffer from low self-esteem so belittle targeted persons (can be obvious or subtle put-downs).
ManipulatorsInterested only in themselves.
Easily threatened and vindictive.
Experts at lying, deceiving and betraying.
Take credit for the work of others.
Never take responsibility for their own “errors.”

Source: Dr. Harvey Hornstein; Brutal Bosses and Their Prey: How to Identify and Overcome Abuse in the Workplace.[9]

Bullying is not about a “clash of personalities,” a “misunderstanding,” or “miscommunication.”[10] According to two psychologists who have conducted surveys on bullying, (1) bullies use surprise and secrecy to gain leverage over those targeted,[11] (2) they are never interested in meeting someone else halfway so trying to negotiate with a bully is useless,[12] (3) they routinely practice psychological violence against specific individuals whom they intentionally try to harm which is devastating to the targeted person’s emotional stability “and can last a long time.”[13] According to the Namies, this psychological violence can take many forms:

Characteristics
The Constant Critic“[P]ut-downs, insults, belittling comments, name-calling.”
Constantly criticizes the targeted person’s competence.
Glares at the targeted person or deliberately avoids eye contact when the targeted person speaks.
“[N]egatively reacts to the targeted person’s contributions with sighs, frowns or the “just sucked a lemon look.”
“[B]lames the targeted person for fabricated errors.”
“Makes unreasonable demands for work with impossible deadlines.”
The Two-Headed SnakePretends to be nice while sabotaging the targeted person – one minute vicious, the next minute supportive and encouraging.
Ensures that the targeted person doesn’t have the necessary resources to do the work.
Makes nasty, rude or hostile remarks to the targeted person privately; puts on friendly face in public.
Steals credit for work done by the targeted person.
Says one thing to the targeted person and something completely different behind the targeted person’s back.
Will “kiss up the ladder and attack those below.”
The GatekeeperPurposefully cuts the targeted person out of the communication loop.
Ignores the targeted individual or gives that person the “silent treatment.”
Models isolation or exclusion of the targeted person for others.
The Screaming MimiPoisons the workplace with angry outbursts.
Intimidates through gestures.
Purposefully interrupts the targeted person during meetings and conversations.
Discounts/denies the targeted person’s thoughts or feelings.

Source: Gary and Ruth Namie; The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job.[14]

According to the Namie’s research: (1) “Bullies are inadequate, defective and poorly developed people. Targets are empathetic, just and fair people,”[15] (2) “Bullies start all conflict and trouble. Targets react.”[16] (3) “Targets don’t deserve or want what they get. Bullies are liars and cowards,”[17] and (4) “Good employers purge bullies. Bad ones promote them.”[18]

Identifying “Group Bullying” Behavior: “Mobbing”

Mobbing[19] (group bullying) occurs where one bully, “[t]hrough innuendo, rumors, and public discrediting”…, creates a hostile environment for the targeted person and, “gathers others to willingly, or unwillingly, participate in continuous malevolent actions to force a person out of [a job or] the workplace.”[20] When the mobbing behavior finally does result in resignation, termination, or early retirement from a job or the workplace, the targeted person is portrayed as being at fault and “voluntarily” leaving.[21] Mobbing in an organization is like cancer in that, “beginning with one malignant cell, it can spread quickly, destroying vital elements of the organization.”[22]

Bullying Results in Real Physical and Emotional Injury

All of the authors agree that bullying behavior leads to real and serious physical and emotional problems for the individuals they target, including but not limited to damage to their self-esteem and confidence, anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, insomnia, exhaustion, poor concentration, and substance abuse.[23]

How to Eliminate Bullies From Your Organization

Since bullies are often skilled at hiding their actions behind a veil of overt friendliness, helpfulness and cooperation, organizations must establish processes and procedures to uncover their actions. An accidental bully, when confronted with his or her behavior, will quickly apologize and the behavior never happens again.[24] An intentional bully denies that the behavior is occurring and continues to repeat it.[25]

Bullies are driven by their own fears and insecurities, therefore they rarely can be cured, but their behavior can be controlled or eradicated. Eradicating bullying behavior from an organization starts at the top because it is the head of any organization that sets the tone for whether bullying behavior will be accepted.[26] An organization reflects the values, attitudes, and actions of its leadership. Leaders who ignore, or otherwise allow, these destructive behavior patterns to occur, are eroding the health of their organizations and opening the door for some of their best talent to escape from this upsetting and counterproductive environment.

To eradicate bullying, employers should:

  1. Establish an anti-bullying policy[27] defining what bullying is and giving some common sense descriptions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors at work. Included in such a policy should be a statement that the organization supports the right of all employees to work in an environment free from bullying. This will give targeted individuals a context and a constructive way to confront the bullying tactics.
  2. Conduct climate surveys[28] to uncover bullying behavior, provided that these surveys are sent to a neutral-third party for review and confidentiality is guaranteed. Unless this is done, respondents will not feel free to express their true feelings.
  3. Establish reporting, investigation and mediation processes, guaranteeing those who avail themselves of these processes that there will be no retaliation against them.[29] Because bullying is often duplicitous and slippery to detect, it can be risky for others to complain. This is especially true when bullying has become part of an organizational culture. Rather than fight the “mob,” many talented people move on to a healthier workplace. Therefore, a clear statement and enforcement of an anti-retaliation policy is essential.
  4. Train all employees to ensure that everyone is aware of his and her responsibility to conduct themselves in a professional, civil, and businesslike manner.[30] Top management reinforcement of the “zero-tolerance for bullying behavior” at new employee orientation sessions can help. Employees should be taught how to recognize the first signs of the bullying/mobbing process.[31]

Current Legal Protections Against Bullying

The American legal system has been hesitant to legislate manners or civility in the workplace (outside of the civil rights laws) but this attitude might soon change because of the new requirements for success in a hyper-competitive global economy.[32] As the problem becomes more recognized and acknowledged, legal remedies will no doubt be found.[33] They may take the form of new laws directly addressing the issue, perhaps through the inclusion of those who are bullied as a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This has been the preferred avenue in the past for workers seeking relief for discrimination-related unfavorable treatment in the workplace. This Act, among other things, permits relief for protected classes based on a “hostile work environment” theory. A “hostile work environment” means the workplace is permeated with “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult” so severe or pervasive “that it alter(s) the conditions of the victim’s employment and create(s) an abusive working environment.”[34]

Even under current law, employers should be especially vigilant to make sure that individuals targeted by the bullies are not members of protected classes who might be able to establish claims against the employer under existing discrimination laws. Federal courts have not yet extended the hostile workplace doctrine to prohibit workplace bullying conduct based on characteristics other than those specifically enumerated in Title VII, but history suggests that there will be an expansion of protection to those who suffer this type of workplace harassment.[35]

In the meantime, the preferred avenue for workers seeking relief for abusive treatment in the workplace has been the state common law tort claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Although currently such workplace-related claims might be difficult to win, those who practice, condone, or accept bullying behavior should not take much comfort in that. After all, the tobacco companies were able to successfully defend themselves against claims for years until the tide recently turned, resulting in numerous and staggering multi-billion dollar verdicts against the tobacco companies.

At a minimum, the bullies themselves could be sued individually for their own intentional tortious conduct. An employer would be liable for the intentional tortious acts of its employees if it knows of the bad acts and takes no action to terminate those acts or discipline the employee who is committing those bad acts. Punitive damages are available for tortious acts committed maliciously or oppressively.

However, the issue of bullying should not be addressed simply as a way to avoid lawsuits or other negative reactions. Creating a “bully-free” environment is a proactive step that should be taken to improve the company’s strategic position in today’s highly-competitive global economy. By creating a “bully-free” environment, an organization can create a culture of respect in which innovation, performance, and healthy communication can flourish. To become a top performer in any industry, an organization must be able to recognize and rid itself of this performance and talent-robbing behavior or risk losing their single most important competitive asset – their talented employees. Eradicating bullying is not “nice to do,’ it’s a “must do.” The survival of the organization in the 21st century depends on it.


Endnotes

[1] Gary Hamel, Leading the Revolution, Harvard Business School Press, 2000, p. 5-6.

[2] See, e.g. Dr. Harvey Hornstein, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey: How to Identify and Overcome Abuse in the Workplace, Riverhead Books, 1996, at 51 ; Gary and Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work , What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job, Sourcebooks, Inc. 2000, at 13, 69-70.

[3] The Bully at Work, 2000, at 14, 38- 46, 82, Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz, Gail Pursell Elliott, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse In the Workplace, Civil Society Publishing, 1999, at 58.

[4] Mobbing, supra note 3.

[5] Id.

[6] The Bully at Work, supra note 2, at 3-4. “Unchecked…bullying quickly escalates into a hostile, poisoned workplace where everyone suffers. If ignored long enough, the entire organization is placed at risk, facing preventable trauma or litigation.” Id. at 4; Mobbing, supra note 3, at 20.

[7] Brutal Bosses, supra note 2, at 10.

[8] Id. at 4.

[9] Id. at 50-60.

[10] The Bully at Work , supra note 2 at p. 73.

[11] Id. at xi.

[12] Id. If allowed to continue, the targeted person’s personality “gets trampled, bent out of recognition even” to the targeted person. Id. at 5.

[13] Id. at 5.

[14] Id. at 19-33. This is not an exhaustive list – only some examples of bullying behavior. Id.

[15] Id. at 14.

[16] Id. at 18.

[17] Id. at 5.

[18] Id. at 33.

[19] Id at 20. “….Co-workers, colleagues, superiors and subordinates attack their dignity, integrity and competence, repeatedly, over a number of weeks, months, or years. At the end, they resign, voluntarily or involuntarily, are terminated, or forced into early retirement. This is mobbing- workplace expulsion through emotional abuse.” Id. “Because the organization ignores, condones or even instigates the behavior, it can be said that the victim, seemingly helpless against the powerful and many, is indeed “mobbed”. The result is always injury – physical and mental distress or illness and social misery and, most often, expulsion from the workplace.” Id. at 40.

[20] Id. at 33. Mobbing is a household word in some European countries. Laws against mobbing behavior have been enacted in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Germany and have been proposed in the UK and Australia. Id. at 26-27.

[21] Mobbing, supra note 3, at 41. The hallmark of mobbing behavior is an initial unresolved conflict that is preventing the targeted person from accomplishing his or her job in the most effective way. The targeted person tries with good intent to resolve the situation in a constructive way, never realizing that the people he or she is dealing with have already decided to get rid of him or her, which is “revealed in attacks of various sorts: humiliation, ridicule, stigmatization, ostracism, exclusion and isolation.” Id. at 159. This leads the targeted person to suffer “self-doubt,” “…confusion, tension, anger and depression.” Id. These unresolved conflicts intensify and are magnified until the targeted person is suffering severe emotional distress. The more the targeted person attempts to find recourse the more those who are doing the mobbing create reasons why the issue cannot be resolved. Id. at 160. Because those doing the mobbing have no intention of resolving the conflict, the conflict escalates until it is virtually unmanageable. The targeted person becomes very ill or depressed, work suffers and it is only a matter of time before the targeted person is terminated, resigns or retires. Id. The expulsion of the targeted person was predetermined by those doing the mobbing from the very start and there was nothing the targeted person could have done to resolve the issue (therein lies the “crazy-making”). Id. at 159.

[22] Id. at 34.

[23] See, The Bully at Work, pp. 60-61, Mobbing, pp. 90-95, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey, pp. 74- 77, for a more comprehensive list of physical and emotional consequences for the targeted person.

[24] Bully at Work, supra note 2, at 17.

[25] Mobbing, supra note 3, at 23.

[26] Id. at 132.

[27] Mobbing, p. 144.

[28] Id. at 155.

[29] Id. at p. 142.

[30] Id. at p. 143.

[31] Id.

[32] See, e.g., Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 80-81 (1998).

[33] See e.g. David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status – Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” GEORGETOWN LAW J. Mar. 2000.

[34] Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. at 22.; see also Rogers v. EEOC, 454 F.2d 234 (5th Circuit 1971).

[35] Mobbing, supra note 3, at 21 citing work by Dr. Carroll Brodsky who defined harassment as “behavior that ‘involves repeated and persistent attempts by one person to torment, wear down, frustrate, or get a reaction from another. It is behavior that persistently provokes, pressures, frightens, intimidates…” Id. at 22.

Authors of the article
John E. Richardson, DMin, MBA
John E. Richardson, DMin, MBA,
Linnea B. McCord, JD, MBA,
Linnea B. McCord, JD, MBA,,

, Associate Professor of Business Law at the Graziadio School of Business and Management, Pepperdine University. Dr. McCord started teaching business law and ethics more than 30 years ago, first as an in-house corporate counsel and later as the General Counsel of a division that was part of a high-tech Fortune 500 multinational corporation, headquartered in New York and Paris. Her area of expertise is the critical role Rule of Law plays in the long-term success of economies and countries and why American Rule of Law is unique in the world.

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