Who are the workplace bullies, and what can we do about them?
I’ve been bullied three times in my life, and as anyone who has ever been bullied can tell you, that’s about three times too many. Luckily for me, each of these bullies entered my life when I was an adult. They were professional, on-the-job bullies. And the last one did the damage just recently.
I don’t do well with bullies—at least not when they’re coming after me. I don’t know why, but I just don’t.
When my kids are being bullied, watch out. Boy, can my mama bear roar. And some time ago, Quantum Governance had to speak truth to power, lending a voice to a good number of scared employees who were being bullied terribly by their CEO. One employee told me, “Everyone’s constantly afraid they’re going to be fired. He walks around here saying, ‘Let’s see, who will I fire today?’” I didn’t hesitate for a moment then. I knew what was right, and so did our CEO. It wasn’t news that our client, the board, wanted to hear, much less news that they were expecting. But I’m proud to say that from the chair on down, they reacted with speed and integrity.
Heidi Lynn Kurter, in her July 2019 Forbes article entitled “Workplace Bullying: Four Steps to Overcome It and Fight Back,” writes, “Isolation, intimidation and threats are just a few tactics bullies use to strip someone of their power and identity. The reasons could be as simple as feeling threatened by someone’s success, personality or being insecure with themselves as a whole. … Research shows workplace bullying not only impacts one’s happiness but injures their health, productivity and self-confidence, leaving victims feeling stuck and powerless.”
Stuck and powerless. Yes. I’ve felt that.
We all know what bullying is when it happens to our children or on the playground, and we’ve certainly all heard the horrible stories about cyberbullying. But what is workplace bullying? The Workplace Bullying Institute defines it as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an(other) employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above.”
The institute reports that 30% of all adult Americans have been bullied at work. More than 48.6 million of us have been bullied on the job—but a total of 76.3 million workers (or 49% of all American) have been affected by workplace bullying. That means those workers have either been bullied or witnesses to it, which has its own impact. More than two-thirds (67%) of the bullies in our workplaces are men and 33% are women, and same-gender bullying accounts for 61% of it all, according to statistics cited by the institute.
Who Are the Workplace Bullies?
So, who’s doing all this bullying anyway?
I can tell you from our experience at Quantum Governance and from my own that it’s not just employees who are the culprits. I was bullied by my board chair when I was serving as a chief staff officer. I’ve seen other board officers and board members—yes, in the credit union community—bully their CEOs and senior staff. It happens. One member of a credit union’s senior staff told me, “When mistakes happen, it feels like the board really turns the screws on our CEO, even if there are legitimate reasons behind the mistakes.” I’ve even heard about board members bullying other board members. In an interview once, a board member confessed to me, “I feel like I have a target on my back—especially in board meetings.”
And recently, someone sent me a series of emails that I found to be threatening and intimidating. When the person called me a “nasty woman,” I think, as most women can attest, those words were meant to humiliate me. Luckily for me, we don’t work for the same organization.
Unfortunately, workplace bullying may be getting worse. While 6% of respondents to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2021 Workplace Bullying Survey reported that COVID-19 decreased harmful mistreatment among workers, a full 25% said that it has actually increased, and 17% said that it has remained the same: Mistreatment was an issue before the pandemic began, and it remains an issue today.
So, what do we do?
In her Forbes article, Kurter shared four helpful steps worth repeating here:
- Address the situation head-on. Kurter notes that while confronting the bully can be intimidating, especially if it’s the board chair or your supervisor, you should still try. Don’t seek revenge or “stoop to their level.” Be clear that they are acting inappropriately and treating you in an unacceptable manner. “As uncomfortable as it may be, practicing courage will show the bully you’re not as easy as a target as they initially thought.”
- Confide in a confidant. Find someone trustworthy that you can talk to—someone who will support you. Don’t hold all your feelings inside and isolate yourself. Be sure that you are attending to both your physical and mental health needs.
- Document every detail, big and small. If you’re going to report the bullying—either to HR or to your boss, even if your boss is the CEO or the board chair—you’re going to need the facts. Document all the incidents with the date and time and keep copies of any correspondence.
- Stick to facts and report it higher. Try to be calm when you are presenting the facts. And if you need to, go higher. And higher and higher. As Alexander Stein, Ph.D., founder of Dolus Advisors, said to me this week, “Bullies only remain bullies because most people don’t report them.” And frankly, why would they? The Workplace Bullying Institute’s study found that employers’ responses to bullying aren’t typically great. In fact, they’re pretty bad. Between 60% and 63% of the survey respondents said their employers’ responses were negative. They either encourage bullying, defend it, rationalize it, deny it or discount it. In contrast, 37% to 40% of respondents said that their employers’ responses were positive. These companies acknowledge bullying, eliminate it and condemn it.)
The bottom line is that we all deserve to be treated with respect. If your employees wouldn’t have faith in how you would respond to a report of bullying within your ranks, you’ve got some work to do. And if you’re among the 4% of workers or leaders that the institute data shows are doing the bullying, knock it off. You know better.
Jennie Boden is president of consulting services at CUES strategic partner Quantum Governance. She has 30 years of experience in the national nonprofit sector and has served as chief staff officer for two nonprofits.