On Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

By Joanna Barsh

Some bosses are tough, aggressive, direct, and curt. That might be considered acceptable behavior, even if it doesn’t suit you. But harassment and abuse are not acceptable. It can be hard to tell the difference, particularly when you’ve been heating up degree by degree. That’s what I found from my research on Millennials at work.

Over the course of two years, I interviewed over 200 high performing, high potential women and men to explore how young leaders develop. Through story analysis, we found twelve important challenges that almost everyone faces during their first ten years of work. Sadly, working with an office villain is among them.

Every organization houses bullies who use harassment or another form of abuse. They found me every time. For years, I was a bully magnet. It started early, in my first retail job. Back then, retail was filled with screamers and abusers. One boss took pleasure in dressing down her young assistants to tears, me included. Our office had a buzzer system, so that she could communicate with us. At first, it was amusing. Within months, every new assistant had the same response—what Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” Hearing the buzzer, we froze until the insistent buzzing caused one of us to take our turn.

After business school, I began to work at McKinsey & Company. Then I found bullies in each client organization (or they found me). One media executive assured me he would get me fired and blacklisted. Another dressed me down in front of his entire staff and my team. Someone else called me to his office where he lay in wait with a colleague. He hollered in a voice like Orson Welles’, calling our efforts worthless and demanding that we cease and desist. In all cases, my work was just fine, thank you very much. Pushing for change, and triggered by hostile voices, I was simply more vulnerable.

So I have a warm spot for this particular challenge. Following is my advice for when you’re in harm’s way at work:

Assess your situation

Every one of us has the capacity to be an asshole. Lack of sleep, job stress, pressing deadlines, an irrational boss, and more throw us off our game. But as Professor Robert Sutton defines it, certified assholes are cruel, taking pleasure in demeaning others at will. That sounds obvious, but it’s not. Abusers can be subtle, leaving you wondering if you got what you deserved. When bad behaviors are a cultural norm in a high stress environment, things get murkier.

Use these red flags to assess who you’re dealing with: obsession with meaningless details to assert control; unpredictable temper explosions; inflated sense of the person’s importance relative to yours; inability to listen; manipulative behavior; superficial charm turned on at will.

Recognize when it’s not you

Let’s say the other person is standing on the table, swearing at the top of his lungs. (That’s happened to me). What if he just criticizes you publicly, his voice dripping with derision? That’s not about you. If you’re wondering what it looks like, talk to colleagues who have witnessed this ‘bully.’ In some bullies, it might just look like bad behavior, or like they’re curmudgeons, not abusers.

Assuming the red flags are in place and it’s not you, swing into action.

Get help

Find allies who have the organization’s respect to protect you and address the issue. You’ll need them if your boss is the abuser. If your boss is a conflict avoider and unhelpful, you’re still going to have to go elsewhere. Reach out to Human Resources, but be aware that the bully may have friends there. Be smart. Ask around to learn who to avoid as you reach out for help.

I made this mistake in my second job in retail. Suffering from an abusive boss, I had developed a physical reaction to stress—literally, an unpredictable bloody nose almost daily.  Colleagues were suffering physical ailments, too, but we never connected. Peers, we were pitted against each other. Only later did we learn that our boss was an alcoholic with an anger management issue.

Set up barriers to protect yourself

Don’t assume that others in the office know about your plight with the bully. Closely related to the point above, make sure you’re never alone with the bully. Your colleagues can help out on this count, but you’ve got to make that first request. Clearly request of them that they always be with you when the bully is close by; communicate clearly with them how you feel about the bully and what you require in the way of shared observation of his/her actions towards you.

Call in the bigger guns

Your situation may feel untenable. If you’re in regular contact with the bully, reach out to someone even more senior—the boss’s boss, the head of human resources, or a senior executive who is well respected.  Find someone who will put the company’s interest before friendships. Frame this as a company issue—because it is. The abuser has created an unsafe environment. Recognize that the organization may tolerate abuse from high performers. So start lining up a role change out of the department.

In that second job, I finally reached out to a very senior executive who transferred me to another department. My work experience transformed overnight.

Be prepared to walk away if you are unsupported

Imagining life without this daily energy drain may be enough to give you the courage to walk away. To paraphrase Mr. Sutton, ‘Run, don’t walk—far away from certified assholes.’ Before you do, make sure that someone in management has heard you out. Your actions may improve work life for your colleagues who remain. Sometimes, the situation calls for a superhero. Be ready to walk away, you have that option.

The working world is not as civil as we’d like it to be. Villains roam office hallways relatively consequence free. Luckily, more and more people are standing up to rid the workplace of them.

About

Joanna Barsh‘s latest book is called Grow Wherever You Work: Straight Talk to Help With Your Toughest Challenges, published by McGraw-Hill. To learn more about Joanna, visit: www.joannabarsh.net

Have you been bullied or harassed in the workplace? Can you share any tips on how you handled it? Please help our community to empower your fellow women.

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