Defending the Bullied
Unfortunately, bullies are not just kids we only see in either grade or high school that disappears when we become adults. Bullies exist as adults too. I am not talking the brash mouth athletes we see on TV talking trash to each other. I don’t consider that bullying. I am talking the more subtle, devious, toxic type we see in workplaces. The easy ones to spot are the rank and file employees who tend to be very loud and abusive to their co-workers. These bullies generally don’t last long in any one position and are quickly cut out of the workplace due to their behavior. These people are toxic and can be dangerous (workplace violence) but hardly subtle or devious. The truly toxic, dangerous, devious bully is the one with a position of authority. These are the type I want to address in this article.
These high-level bullies can range from supervisors to VP’s to CEO’s. Take a look at all the current news stories of high-level executives accused of harassment, and you can readily see they exist. They are the type of people who don’t like to be challenged and quickly move to eliminate anyone they feel is a threat to their dominance. They present two faces in the workplace. Their superiors usually see them as hard-working, well-spoken, and high achieving leaders of their of the teams. Those who work under these bullies fall into two camps –
1. The yes men who fall over themselves stroking the bully boss’ ego and happily carrying out any directive, lie, scheme, or plot devised.
2. Those workers that cannot participate in this charade and simply want to perform their work honestly and effectively. These workers tend to respond honestly to the Bully Boss and say exactly what they are thinking; providing honest feedback. That is how they become what I like to call the targeted.
Targeted workers of Bully Bosses endure a relentless, unfair, and dishonest onslaught where their performance is very publicly criticized (with the support of the yes men), and they are given an ever-increasing, ever-changing, verbally communicated (ie no documentation) task list that is impossible to perform properly no matter how hard or how long you work at the task. Eventually, the reprimands come, followed by the warnings, then termination. I have witnessed this throughout my career at nearly every place I have worked and have counseled many who have gone through this dilemma. These employees eventually left that company either voluntarily or terminated. These employees are very good, high achieving, and productive workers who are too honest for the coward Bully Boss that is in charge. It’s nearly impossible for a lone worker to defend against this and very few have the mental toughness to endure this 40+ hr a week onslaught. I have read many articles stating that good employees don’t leave companies; they leave bad managers. I agree with them. I feel that the senior leadership of a company that allows a Bully Boss to thrive fails to take the pulse of what is going on in the company. That is why it becomes such a destructive event for a company that, in many instances, requires a total reboot.
Now let’s add a twist to this problem, you are a manager, and this bully boss is reaching over you and targeting your high performing worker. What do you do? Quit? If you do that you leave a very good, loyal worker, who was counting on you to defend them, all alone and out in the cold. Effectively, you become a coward yourself. Do you fight fire with fire? By doing this, you will join the ranks of the targeted and, to effectively do this, you will need to sink to the level of the Bully Boss. If you are an honest, high-performing worker yourself, then you are not capable of winning this game. Is there an ethical way out of this dilemma?
Yes, I believe there is, and this is the counsel I have given clients that have run into this situation. It’s a step by step process that I came up with and has proven effective in combatting the Bully Boss that is targeting your worker. Here are the steps:
1. Get Ice Cold – take out any emotion. Everything you do in response to a Bully Boss targeting one of your team members has to be well thought out and completely void of emotion. Bullies know how to provoke their targets to fits of anger and then play the victim when the bullied individuals react. You can’t fall into this trap. Get ice cold and take the emotion out.
2. Just the facts – Bully Bosses like to use phrases like, “I must have said this a thousand times,” to try and point out the deficiencies in targeted individuals; claiming that the standard was clearly communicated multiple times over. This is a “shut you up” tactic designed to silence any argument you may have. The proper way to respond is to fall back on documented, written records only!! Don’t argue or say you didn’t understand. Fall back on real, documented facts and let the facts speak for themselves. In the majority of the cases, there is usually very little documentation regarding the “standards” or “minimum expectations” (classic buzzwords) of a job duty. Point out to your Bully Boss that these “standards” must be documented if they are to be effective and followed. Regardless of the situation, simply let the facts speak for themselves.
3. Follow the process – every workplace has a defined set of rules regarding gross employee misconduct and the process you need to follow when terminating an employee. Follow this process to the letter. There is no room for argument here as you are simply following the company’s policy, which are usually designed to avoid potential lawsuits. Tell your Bully Boss you are looking out for the best interests of the company. Many Bully Bosses are in such a hurry to get rid of someone that they overstep the companies disciplinary process. Force that Bully Boss back into the process.
4. Do Not Be Afraid to Testify – if you are called to make a statement; it is a virtual guarantee that a Bully Boss will get aggressive and probably threaten your position or employment if you fail to “support” his leadership. You will be coached on what you should say and be dragged into closed-door meetings to ensure you are “on the same page” with the Bully Boss. It’s ok for you to say you are simply going to speak the truth and only the truth. Your integrity is more valuable than lying to get rid of this Bully Boss’ target. Don’t back down, speak the truth without any fear.
5. Support your Employee – the sad reality is that no matter how hard and honestly you fight for your targeted employee, it is probably a losing battle. Besides, do you want a good, loyal, dedicated member of your team to suffer this endless bullying?? No, you don’t. You need to help your valuable team member develop an exit plan, give him an excellent reference, grant him the time necessary to interview, thank him for his hard work, and apologize that you could not do more to defend him. You will gain a lifelong supporter and resource that you can call on when you move on from this Bully Boss.
6. Let the Chips Fall Where They May – the greatest fear you will face in this process of standing up to a Bully Boss is the loss of your job. Make no mistake; the pressure will be intense and fierce. Doing the right thing is, at times, exceptionally difficult. Don’t fear the consequences. If you back down now, it only gives the Bully Boss more reason to do this again. Also, don’t let the Bully Boss make you think that no one else will hire you. This is a lie. The reason the Bully Boss wants you around is that they are aware of the talent you possess and are likely a big part of the team’s success. Letting you go will have a detrimental impact on the Bully Boss’ reputation. The Bully Boss would never risk that.
True story. A very good friend of mine became the target of a Bully Boss. This Boss was about as arrogant, dishonest, and manipulative as you can get. An absolute cancer on office morale but adored by the corporate powers that be. My friend used me as a sounding board throughout this process, and pretty much we followed the steps previously outlined. One day, in the middle of a crucial business meeting, he received a very disrespectful message from this Bully Boss. This was the last straw for him. He stood up, quit on the spot, and walked out the door. Afterward, he told me that it was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. It was the best decision he ever made. Do you know what happened next?? His health dramatically improved, his relationship with his wife improved, and he did just fine finding another job that treated him with respect and honesty.
I understand how fearful it is to be stuck in a horrible job with a terrible Bully Boss. A job that you dread walking into everyday. I have faced this a few times in my career. It’s scary but, if you are motivated, you will find other work. There is always other work. Life is too short and precious to be lived sweating under the yoke of a Bully Boss. It’s not worth it.