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A problem with authority

Workplace bullying is even worse when your boss is behind it

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Recently, I received several requests for assistance on the deeply troubling human-resource issue of bullying in the workplace. Worse yet, the boss is the person doing the bullying.

These distressing situations prompted me to read a recent report published by the U.S.-based Workplace Bullying Institute. Its 2014 survey found at least 20 per cent of workers reported they were being bullied, while 23 per cent of other workers were aware of bullying and 21 per cent reported witnessing bullying in their workplace.

Interestingly, the report says men most often target women, while women most often target other women. Women targets of bullying were also at a higher risk of losing their jobs. For example, the survey found 65 per cent of bullying victims are driven out of their workplace.

Similar to the complaints I've recently received, 56 per cent of all bullies were senior-ranking leaders who abused their authority. This leaves employees with challenges in terms of how to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, 75 per cent of employers were found to condone bullying, with only 20 per cent willing to take action in spite of the risk of employee turnover, human-rights complaints and the potential risk of hefty financial penalties.

The bullying complaints I've received in the past month include verbal abuse, intimidation, questioning one's commitment and technical expertise, undermining work accomplishments and preventing employee success. Other situations involve a targeted employee being dismissed from meetings they would normally attend, using worker relationships to isolate the targeted employees and spreading hurtful rumours.

The complaints involve a boss playing favourites by overriding company policies and procedures to give special treatment in exchange for loyalty, which results in increased isolation for targeted employees. There is a wide range of bully behaviour -- from playing the role of Mr. Nice Guy, who covertly undermines the targeted employee, to Attila the Hun, who is feared for overt and constant threats.

Most of the requests for advice I have received recently are about how to survive a bullying situation. There is no standard answer because bullying is extremely difficult, if not dangerous, for an employee to confront. Keep in mind only about 20 per cent of organizations are willing to take action, and when they do the action is typically to release the target from their job.

So what do employees targeted by a boss's bullying do? There are at least three choices, including developing strategies to survive, seeking help and/or filing a complaint, and moving to a more positive workplace.

Developing survival skills

This choice of strategy is most often used by employees who believe they have much to lose by leaving their organization, especially when a pension is at risk. Keeping in mind bullying is not about the employee's skills and expertise, it is all about the need for power, dominance and control. If this case, the best survival skill to develop is learning how to compartmentalize work problems and separate work and home.

You can also address the issue by speaking to your boss. Your message must be strategically developed, presented in a positive manner, and focused on what you can do for the organization and what you can do to make the boss look good. However, this does not guarantee a solution. Continue making attempts to win the boss over, but be wary if your personal health starts to suffer. When this happens, it is time to leave.

During this time, be sure to maintain a positive attitude, avoid gossiping with anyone about your situation, and look after yourself by meditating, writing in a journal, reading self-help books, seeking stress counselling and, of course, updating your resumé.

Seek help

It is important you follow your organization's complaint policy. Be sure to document every incident: the time, date, witnesses and specific descriptions of the bullying. Consult with your human resources manager, and if that is not successful, seek out alternatives such as representation from a union or your professional association. Seek out government agencies such as the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, but keep in mind, while some departments oversee legislation, they don't have the power of investigation. Finally, consult an expert on harassment and bullying to get specific advice or professional intervention.

Exit the organization

The time to exit an organization is when your own health begins to deteriorate. There is simply no substitute for your health. You need your health for your next job. When you let yourself get extremely stressed over your situation, you will not be in any shape to apply for a new job. You lose your concentration, you may have heart palpitations and you may lose energy. If you let things slide too long, you may need to take time off to recuperate. Sometimes you can negotiate a settlement to exit the organization, but be sure to ask for career-transition services to help you get back into the workforce.

It is disconcerting to once again learn bullying is in the workplace -- and especially that bullying by one's boss is continuing to thrive in the workplace. As the Workplace Bullying Institute's survey demonstrates, organizations are more likely to remove the victim than discipline the boss. While this strategy demonstrates faulty thinking, the boss is often a hard-driving professional who continues to meet the organization's financial goals and objectives. It is difficult for an organization to interfere when they also rely on these powerful financial contributions.

Bullying destroys employee morale and creates a hostile work culture. If this is the case, organizations will encounter high employee absenteeism, high employee turnover, low employee productivity and a decline in profitability. If organizational leaders and boards of directors get even a hint of these issues, it's time to look in the mirror, identify the causes and find solutions.

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group and president of Career Partners International, Manitoba. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 H1

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