Experts say that workplace bullying is disturbingly common. A big part of the problem is that there are very few places bullied and harassed employees can turn to for help.
Bullying bosses and toxic workplaces have dominated the headlines recently. Along with allegations of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, members of the entertainment industry have described how his brother Bob Weinstein would bully and verbally abuse staff.
In a written statement to The Wall Street Journal, Weinstein said: “At times I have a temper, but I would not describe it as volatile, and I’m definitely not a bully.” The Weinstein company did not immediately return a request for comment from MarketWatch.
Roughly 60 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying, according to an annual report released in June by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Nearly one in five Americans are bullied, and more than 60% are aware of abusive behavior in the workplace.
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And in the majority of cases, male bosses are the culprits, and women are the targets. Three in five workplace bullies are managers or executives, and 70% are men, according to the report. Around two-thirds of those who are the targets of bullying are women.
“The problem with the majority of bullies in the workplace today is they know how to stay under the radar,” said Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant.” “So they stay in their position for a very long time.”
Fear — whether of retaliation, losing one’s career or other possible adverse effects — keeps people from calling out abuse. And that fear is, to some extent, substantiated: A 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out regarding mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.
“HR is as bad as FEMA after Katrina.”
Not taking action has its own ramifications though — not only for people’s careers and mental well-being, but also for their physical health. Research has linked bullying with depression and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
Here is some advice and need-to-know information from experts on what to do when facing abuse from higher-ups.
HR isn’t necessarily there to help you
Opinions about the role an employer’s human resources department can play in situations like this vary widely. HR is “as bad as FEMA after Katrina,” said Gary Namie, a social psychologist and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute.
“HR is a management support function,” Namie said. “They’re all about liability protection, and they’re worried about protecting the organization.”
Namie also pointed out that HR will have little power or authority to confront someone in the C-suite, as was the case with the allegations against Weinstein.
Others advised that the choice regarding whether or not to go to HR about a bullying situation should depend on the company. Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University and author of “The Asshole Survival Guide,” pointed to companies like Baird — where chairman Paul Purcell has instated a so-called “No Asshole” policy — and Netflix
— which has a comprehensive guide regarding expectations of workplace culture — as examples of employers whose HR teams would act in an employee’s best interests.
More generally, the success one has in dealing with HR over such an issue will hinge on the approach taken, Taylor said. People affected by bullying should seek advice from HR on how to deal with the situation, rather than action. “That way it’s not a direct attack and it’s not threatening,” she said.
Find ways to support your case
Documenting abuse is crucial, experts said. Not only will it help when arguing (to HR or in court) that a manager was abusive, but it can also assuage the self-doubt many victims of harassment face.
And as the saying goes: There’s strength in numbers. Experts recommended reaching out to colleagues to see if a boss’s behavior follows any sort of pattern. With the Weinstein case, “you see the cascading effect breaking the silence has,” said Namie.
It’s harder for an employer to discount or to ignore harassment and bullying claims when it comes from multiple employees. But experts also advised caution regarding who a concerned employee talks to given the real concerns surrounding retaliation.
If you decide to pursue legal action, know the potential consequences
Taking one’s abuse public is attractive to many people who have faced workplace bullying, but it comes with a price, Sutton said. “Revenge isn’t so sweet,” he warned.
Litigation can be a long, stressful and expensive experience. And there’s no guarantee that one’s case will be successful. “The Gretchen Carlson stories are very rare,” Sutton said, referring to the former Fox News anchor who reached a settlement with parent-company 21st Century Fox Inc. over allegations of sexual harassment by former Fox News chief Roger Ailes. (21st Century Fox
and MarketWatch-parent News Corp.
share common ownership.)
Still, Namie said having a lawyer write a letter to the employer will create “an external, credible threat” that can push an employer toward action. Consumers can find an employment lawyer by contacting the National Employment Lawyers Association.
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Know that not all bullies are alike
Many bullies take the form of someone like Harvey Weinstein — the classic image of someone who is hot-tempered, shouts often and seeks retribution over perceived slights. But that’s just one of the many types of bullies, said Sutton.
Managers can be two-faced — cheerful to an employee’s face, but conniving behind their backs — he said. He further described a third kind of bully boss: One who acts as if their staff is seemingly invisible and completely neglects others’ needs.
It’s also important to recognize whether someone’s bad behavior is inherent to who they are or situational. “I essentially say you’ve got to know your asshole and know yourself,” Sutton said. “Are you dealing with a certified asshole versus someone who’s having a bad day?”
If possible, address concerns directly with the perpetrator
Given that bullies can take different shapes and forms, Taylor said it’s important to consider whether addressing concerns with them directly will alleviate the situation. But she said it’s important to tread lightly and diplomatically when bringing up slights. “You have to do it in a gentle way that doesn’t hurt their ego,” she said.
Taylor suggested sandwiching mentions of the bullying behavior with positive comments regarding the work an employee’s team is doing. She also said that an affected worker should demonstrate how a change in the workplace atmosphere will improve their work. “If your bully boss can see something in it for them, you can effect change and positive results — no boss wants to fail,” she said.
But Taylor also warned that not all situations warrant this — if the bullying is longstanding and damaging, an employee should put their own well-being ahead of everything else.
Also see: Some tough love for workers who, like Trump, thought their jobs would be easier
Get out of there — or find ways to cope
Perhaps the easiest way to deal with a workplace bully is to find a new workplace. But that’s not possible in every situation.
One way to cope with a bullying boss is to get as much distance from them as possible — literally. “Studies have shown if you can get just a little bit further away physically from people who are toxic, you suffer less,” Sutton said.
Additionally, experts recommended setting clear boundaries with them and being consistent. Learning what triggers an abusive manager can also help an employee avoid further distress.
Taylor suggested that employees should treat a bully boss like a toddler: Use humor to diffuse any tension, and then make arguments using reason and verifiable facts. “Like toddlers, they thrive on chaos,” she said. “You have to role-model the behavior you want to see. By breaking everything down in a logical, organizational way, you’re managing up and will tame your bully boss.”