Real case: “Ken” was a toadying manager who cut the CEO’s grass for free and even washed his car regularly as a favor. He was the ultimate boot licker to all the senior staff. Yet everyone beneath him in his department was on antidepressants. To those above him, Ken seemed a hard task master. Those below, however, experienced him for what he was: a randomly malicious bully, whose threats and abuse strangled productivity at every turn. Ken’s comeuppance? He was promoted. After all, the CEO loved his car.
It seems straight out of a “Dilbert” comic strip, but this little tidbit of business reality is real life for any number of office workers — and tends to be ignored by upper management. On-the-job bullying is that special brand of harassment that targets nonspecific, non-categorized employees. The individual is being harassed or abused not because he or she is black, Muslim, over 40, or a woman. But the target is being repeatedly victimized nonetheless, to the point of being unable to fulfill his workplace duties.
Sweden, Britain, France, Quebec, and Australia have adopted laws to deal with this workplace terrorism. Now at last, state by state, America is considering such laws too. To help present the problem and the legal system’s possible solutions, the New Jersey State Bar Foundation is offering two public seminars on “Workplace Bullying: An Issue of Importance in the 21st Century,” on Tuesday, April 4, at 6 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick and on Wednesday, April 5, at 4 p.m. at Seton Hall in Newark. A special lawyers-only seminar is planned at Rutgers Law School in New Brunswick on Wednesday evening. Free. Visit www.njsbf.org to register.
Panelist Gary Namie, author of “The Bully at Work,” and founder of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, explains the scope of this national problem (“Ken’s” case comes from his own studies.) Professor David Yamada of Boston-based Suffolk Law School outlines the “Healthy Workplace Bill” he has authored, and which is now being considered in many states.
Other panelists include J. Frank Vespero-Papeleo, New Jersey Civil Rights director; Sue Pai Yang, a workers compensation judge in Newark; and Leisa-Ann Smith, director of NJSBF’s Anti-Teasing and Bullying Program.
Social psychologist Namie and his wife, Ruth Namie, grew into the study of industrial bullying the hard way: through experience. Born in Pittsburgh, Namie earned a B.A. in psychology from Washington and Jefferson University in l974, followed by a doctorate in social psychology from the University of California. For the next two decades he remained a professor, happily entrenched in academe. During this he also consulted to private firms, where he worked on special projects ranging from management training and organizational behavior to ergonomics.
Then, in l995, Ruth Namie decided to get back into clinical work. Having earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she had been working in the corporate world, training managers for the Sheraton hotel chain and others. Moving to the private practice of psychology, she joined a clinic, which wooed her and initially welcomed her with open arms. Then came Sheila.
Sheila was the type of office bottom feeder, who, using the weapons of humiliation and disruption, flourished like a toadstool in a swamp. She threatened, abused, spread false rumors, and used her position to spread fear on every occasion.
This experience changed Ruth Namie’s career direction, and that of her husband as well. In l997 they teamed up and devoted their talents to creating Seattle-based Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, and the Work Doctor consulting service, which ferrets out and treats workplaces bullying onsite. Visit www.workdoctor.com.
“We Americans are tough,” says Gary Namie, “And we all have been told that bullies only pick on sissies. So when a boss bullies you at work, you feel ashamed. Ashamed because you didn’t fight back and ashamed because you have fallen into the sissy category.” The result, he says, is that we suck it up, hate our jobs, take to single malt therapy, and find every excuse to do a poor job. Those who can summon the strength to fight back against these on-the-job terrorists should be able to find help from their human resource departments, which should be able to arm their employees with the weapons of a fair reporting procedure.
Who is a bully? Whatever happened to Flashman, who bullied Tom Brown at school. Or for that matter, what happened to your own school’s bully? He grew up and lives in your office. The difference is, he probably fares better now, because, like Ken, he has learned how much easier it is to lie and ingratiate himself into a CEO’s good graces, than a school teacher’s.
And while your schoolyard bully probably used muscle to enforce his rule, it is probably not muscle that the workplace bully is wielding. In a survey of 1,300 bullying targets, the Namies found that 50 percent of workplace bullying is woman against woman, while only 30 percent of reported incidents were men bullying women. None of these 1,300 cases showed any preference toward race, religion, age, or gender.
In short, bullies are not a group, but individuals who randomly terrorize anyone available. Invariably, they ingratiate themselves to all seniors. It may be performing groveling favors, or doling out sickening praise. But Namie has also seen bullies who made themselves invaluable merely by being a good drinking buddy or a dazzling conversationalist. This ingratiation is vital to the bully’s tenure, since his cruelty toward those under him ensure that there is no way that his department can generate a solid, impressive production record.
Generally, the workplace bully falls into at least one of three categories. First is the constant screamer, who keeps workers walking on egg shells. Second is the smarmy snake who smears employees behind their back and plots inter-office warfare. The third variant physically pushes his workers around or constantly fires and suspends workers for no real reason.
Random targets. A bully seeks opportunity, more than personalities. Anyone at his rank or below him provides this opportunity. Yet, interestingly, the mean age for those who complain of being a bully’s target is 41. “We are seeing a whole different generation coming to work now,” says Namie. “These young people are so full of themselves that they will simply not put up with repeated harassment from anyone.”
Bully this new generation just once, and they quit, while their elders, the Baby Boomers, are likely to put up with much more abuse.
The cost. Bullies block production. The equation is simple. If one man can produce really fabulous software in three months, what quality software, in how long a time, will he produce if he is screamed at, threatened, and baited into fighting once every two hours? The answer is zero. The probable result is that this software designer’s absenteeism and lateness will increase dramatically. The bully may quite literally drive him to drink or pills. (Namie’s studies show this is scarcely hyperbole.) At the first opportunity, he will quit, taking his talents to your competitor.
The same scenario will probably prove true for the bully’s whole department. Find such absenteeism and high turnover in one department disproportionately, and odds are that you’ve got a bully. The question the business owner must ask himself is: How much is my clean car or drinking buddy worth?
If they are so bad for business and so despised by all around them, why do bullies last in the workplace? They create a myth. “He really cracks the whip and makes them jump,” his supervisors say. The trouble is, this office tyrant’s approach is all stick and no carrot. Thus morale and production sink lower and lower.
Legal solution? Yamada of Suffolk Law School has recently developed the “Healthy Workplace Bill,” which calls for on-the-job bullying to be legally considered the same as gender harassment. What Yamada and his proponents are trying to do is not to inundate the courts with claims, but rather to give human resource departments a wake up call. Faced with the threat of a potential suit, in which the firm itself may be held liable, companies will soon view workplace bullying as too costly.
But the law should tread lightly here. People must be allowed to say and express things that others may not particularly want to hear. “The last thing we want to do is tortify the workplace,” says Namie. For this reason, the Yamada proposal emphasizes that bullying offenses must be repeated and be exhibited over a long period of time.
In Thomas Hughes novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days,” the headmaster advises young Tom that “nothing breaks up a house like bullying. But bullies are cowards, so fight it through and you’ll be the better for it.” Hopefully Yamada’s bill will arm employees with some other way of fighting it through, rather than quitting.