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When a Bully Pulpit Is Installed at Work

April 17, 2013 By:
Elyse Glickman, JE Feature
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They call weekdays “work” for a reason. At the factory, office or sales territory you call home during those 40 hours, your job is to do your part to keep the organizational machine well-oiled, whether it is managing a department, completing paperwork, making sales quotas or ensuring every product you produce is consistent in quality.

That’s enough to think about. However, the realization that a boss or co-worker may somehow be “out to get you” can transform work into torture.

According to Silvia M. Dut­chevici, president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center in New York City, a workplace bully uses his or her personal and professional power to crush the power of others, and is adept at identifying targets. The bully is also adept at using the workplace environment to an advantage so his or her actions don’t register as bullying to others in passing. 

Victims, meanwhile, are often people who have been exposed to previous traumas.

Dutchevici says he doesn’t consider office bullying “a victim problem, but rather a society problem.”

“In our profit-ridden society, we have become less compassionate to co-workers and fail to develop authentic relationships at work. Managers may see this behavior as necessary to yield results.

“If on the other hand,” he adds, management “believes that collaboration and harmony yields more productivity, then there will be less inclination to bully. Though we often talk about unhealthy relationships in our personal lives, we don’t apply the same rules in our professional relationships and we need to educate managers” about this.

Tony Kubica, partner at Kubica LaForest Consulting in Rhode Island, concurs: “Bullying is enabled through organizational culture, which is supported or ignored by leadership. In some cases, the leader is a bully, which sets the expectation that people need to suck it up for a good job.”

But then there are the cases in which, he notes, “organizational leaders are not the bully themselves, but enable bullies at the mid-management level by tolerating or ignoring the bully tribe they belong to.”

What makes up a bully tribe? Says Kubica, people who are “anti-Semites, anti-minority, anti-women, anti-the perceived weak, anti-intelligent, anti-socially less skilled, and so on. It is leadership tolerance of this that is an issue. And we do not mean just executive leadership, we mean anyone in the organization from shift supervisor on up.”

The topic of bullying at work is not new, especially with laws on the books focused on sexual harassment and discrimination based on age, race or religion. On the other hand, the conversation about co-workers exhibiting bully behaviors and mobbing weaker colleagues “because they can” is just getting started. Perhaps, with childhood and adolescent bullying gaining a higher profile, adults are now forced to look at their own actions.

Chicago-based Rakesh Malhotra, founder of the international organization Five Global Values (FiveGlobalValues.com), conducted an exhaustive study of businesses in the United States, Britain, India and other countries to explore how workplace bullying destabilizes an entire organization as well as the personal lives of bullied workers. Though he has insights on his website that parents can use to teach their children how and why to respect peers and adults, he says he feels adults will learn a lot from relearning those values.

“The difference between harassment and bullying is that bullying happens frequently and repetitively without it being checked,” he observes. “Consequently, a company’s productivity will suffer, and it will ultimately lose a good employee whether he quits or gets fired.

“By tolerating bullying,” he notes, “we are creating a culture of negativity that will ultimately bring down the morale and productivity of the company. The victim experiences repercussions ranging from personal problems with friends and family outside work to serious psychological and health issues.”

Who’s missing out? Says Mal­hotra: “The corporate world doesn’t grasp that there are a lot of really talented people who have not been given a fair opportunity to become superstars in their field because of the fact that the work environment robs them of that potential,” continues Malhotra. 

While Center City-based psychologist Doris Jeanette agrees that companies must do more to make their workplaces more focused on productivity and less on politics, she says she believes people who think they are being victimized need to take a more thorough and honest look at themselves to see how their upbringings and life experiences are contributing to their status as workplace targets.

“Being a victim is learned ­behavior,” Jeanette affirms. “As children, we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of our conditioning from parents and other adults.

“When we are children, there is not a lot we can do, but as adults we can acquire the skills to take responsibility and un-learn how to be a victim, shat­ter it, and replace it with the true goal of being our strongest, most productive, assertive and proactive self at work and in other areas of our lives.”

Rachel Permuth-Lev­ine, senior director of Outcomes-Based Research and Solutions, at one point found herself on the receiving end of unwanted attention from a boss-bully, and is professionally working toward increasing the conversation about creating bully-free work environments.

She is also a proponent of encouraging victims to look within themselves to stop self-defeating behavior, and work with a trusted coach or therapist to get an honest assessment. “People who repeatedly get into victim situations should acknowledge recurring patterns in their careers,” advises Permuth-Levine.

Some books she has studied on the subject advise people to contact HR, while others suggest working things out with an ombudsman, but her advice is to keep your head down, stay focused on the task at hand and start making plans to find another job right away. While you are still at the current firm, she says, find ways to emotionally detach from work when not at the office. 

Over the last few years, Permuth-Levine was hired by So­dexo (a leading provider of integrated food and facilities management) to apply her personal and professional experience to develop their annual Sodexo Workplace Trends Report, now available online.

Attorney Alan Lesnewich of the law firm Fisher & Phillips (which has offices and clients in southern New Jersey) notes that while New Jersey lawmakers are working to come up with a statutory provision that would benefit bullied employees whose situation does not fall into current “protected” categories (such as sexual harassment; racial or age discrimination), as laws stand now, victims still have a heightened burden of proof in terms of moving their case forward in the courts.

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