Bullish: Getting Bullish on Bullies


I know that a lot of us like to pretend to be too cool for mainstream things – for instance, I took a good swipe at Coors Light recently – but it’s hard to deny that Friends was a pretty good show.

I remember seeing the episode, “The One with the Bullies” (Googling “Friends Ross hat bully” totally worked), in which bullies demand that Ross and Chandler give up the good couch at Central Perk, take Chandler’s hat, and order Ross and Chandler never to return.

Sure, the episode was funny, but I remember it out of hundreds of episodes I must have seen because it really hit on something – as adults, we don’t necessarily have better responses to bullying. It just happens less often and it’s easier to get away. If someone cuts in front of you in line and doesn’t respond to your huffs and glares, well, you’ll probably never see that person again, and you can console yourself with the sympathetic glances you’ll probably receive from the other non-assholes around you.

Adult bullying is like adult acne – it’s no easier to solve, it just happens less often.

Let’s take a look at a question from a reader I’ll call Dawn Wiener, after the protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse:

A few years ago I was bullied at work, and none of the “leadership” did anything about it even though they were all very aware and acknowledged it. I was consistently only bullied in front of customers (btw awesome strategy if any bullies are reading), where my integrity kept me from firing back as it occurred. This was probably a mistake, because it went on for some time before I had it up to my sparkly horn and ordered her and our supervisor into our conference room and unloaded on her, demanding it stop and asking why she was targeting me. This confrontation had the (pleasantly) opposite effect I expected, and she completely dropped the act, hugged me, and then had my back (serious underline) from that point forward. No one else could even believe she went from raging-psycho-enemy to co-soldier-in-the-trenches with me just that easy. It was bizarre. So now I see a couple of friends being bullied at their work and I want to offer them advice, but I don’t think cornering your bully is always the right approach, just because it worked for me, once. How can we deal with a bully bullishly? How do we get it to stop, not lose face by losing our own temper (glowing red horns are SO unattractive), keeping our dignity, reputation, etc.? What if we are bullied by our leadership, and want to explore an option other than just quitting?

Love & unicorn snorts,

Dawn

One pleasure of writing Bullish is that pretty much everyone who reads the column regularly has good reading comprehension skills and has (at least) the basics down – no one ever writes to me because they can’t stop cutting themselves or don’t understand why they shouldn’t carry a didgeridoo to the office. So, it’s rather charming that Dawn has pretty much solved her own problem, but is suggesting that we could all use some tools to deal with bullying.

I started digging into this problem and figured I’d see what some experts had to say. Let’s revisit how fucking awful childhood can be! From Kidshealth.org:

Feel good about you. Nobody’s perfect, but what can you do to look and feel your best? Maybe you’d like to be more fit. If so, maybe you’ll decide to get more exercise, watch less TV, and eat healthier snacks.

Got that, kids? If you’re getting bullied, it’s because you’re fat!

It gets (arguably) worse. Lots of advice about bullying involves “acting confident.” Which doesn’t really make you any less small, vulnerable, alone, weird, etc. This advice was also responsible for my spate of Fast, Stompy Walking in middle school (thanks, Seventeen magazine!) Guess what, kids don’t really know how confident people are supposed to act!

And my favorite:

Don’t give the bullies put-downs, give them build-ups (e.g. ignore if they are being nasty and say something positive like, “I think that you’re too smart to be doing this.”)

You’re ready to be a manipulative douchebag manager! And finally:

Get your parents or a friend to help you. They can pretend to be the bully and you can practice different things to say, in a strong voice.

That’s nice if your mom is barking, “Give me your lunch money!” so you can practice saying, “I brought my lunch today!” It’s less nice if it’s your mom telling you how ugly and stupid and awful you are and how you should kill yourself. Which is generally the sort of thing real bullies do.

Okay, so enough dubious advice for children – and, to be fair, both above-quoted sources were very clear that step number one is to “tell an adult.”

So, if you’re being bullied at work, should you also … er, tell an adult? Like human resources? Or a boss, or that boss’s boss?
According to HowToDealWithBullies.com (I wonder what that website could possibly be about?):

The first action you can take to stop this type of bullying is to inform the manager of your feelings. If you belong to a union, or have an employee representative available, you may want to take them with you. Practice what you will say with a family member or trusted friend first to be sure you are staying professional. When dealing with an abusive boss, you should follow the proper channels as much as possible.

According to CIO.com (which also, interestingly, reports that bullies are 50% male and 50% female, but that 84% of victims are women):

Don’t try and enlist the help of your HR department. HR can be the chilliest place any employee can visit, and also one of the most dangerous. HR’s allegiance is to the employer—and its goal is protecting the employer from legal claims. Approach rarely, with caution, and only when fully prepared.

And, as Dawn reported, different bullies respond to different things. Some HR departments are helpful and some are staffed by evil minions. Sometimes, confrontation stops bullying, and sometimes it makes it worse. I’m sure it also makes a difference whether the bullying is obvious to everyone, whether others are also being bullied, and whether the bully is a boss or a peer.

In fact, Kidshealth.org gives two very different motivations that your bully may have:

Although most bullies think they’re hot stuff and have the right to push people around, others are actually insecure. They put other people down to make themselves feel more interesting or powerful. And some bullies act the way they do because they’ve been hurt by bullies in the past — maybe even a bullying figure in their own family, like a parent or other adult.

Some bullies actually have personality disorders that don’t allow them to understand normal social emotions like guilt, empathy, compassion, or remorse. These people need help from a mental health professional like a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Oh, good! Maybe your bully is just insecure! And a victim of another bully, thus creating a daisy-chain of bullies that you may be tempted to perpetuate when someone even more vulnerable came along! (Dear first-grade classmate Jack: I’m sorry for making fun of your dozens and dozens of warts. I was also miserable! I hope you are rich and handsome now.)

But maybe your bully is actually a serial killer.

So, what can we say about bullying overall, other than that there’s no easy answer? (Blah.)

Here’s my thought: Where does bullying happen?

At school, of course. At work. In jail.

That is, bullying on a continued basis requires a captive audience.

It’s good not to be part of a captive audience, or at least to have other options. Such as entrepreneurship, freelancing, working at home, working remotely from exotic locales, conducting sales calls over an online presentation platform, having enough other clients or income sources that you could walk away from a bully-ridden job if needed, and having a wide network so you can easily move to another job.

(See last week’s Bullish: Do You Belong in an Institution?, and an archive here for more on developing multiple income streams and not being taken advantage of.)

I was curious about Dawn’s confrontation with her bully (who didn’t just stop, but suddenly changed sides). Here’s what Dawn had to say when I commented on how strange that turn of events was:

Strange indeed. [The bully] was just extremely rude, curse, snippy, with the glaring eyes and body language to go with it, all in front of customers. But it was so strategized, she would never do it in front of the director or anyone too important. Customers HATED her too so I regret not pushing back in front of them, I suspect they would have clapped : ) And I witnessed more than one yell at her and lodge official complaints.

I think leadership then, and what I’m observing now, is that they generalize the behavior as “she’s just a bitch” and they really don’t get that it is bullying or creating a hostile work environment. They just blow it off as a tough personality. And if you print web articles to try to escalate it and educate them, do you just end of coming off as a spoiled princess who can’t handle a person with a less-than-stellar personality?

I didn’t even know I was being bullied until I started researching it, then it all clicked.

After I confronted her, I guess I earned some level of respect or something from her, I’m not sure. Almost like if you stand up to a bully, they no longer see you as a victim (or is it threat?) and move on to other targets. She was pleasant to me, she would offer help all the time, smile and joke around with me, we worked together amazingly, to the shock of the rest of the department. No one else got that kind of pleasant attitude from her, and it never even felt fake. She never bullied “on my behalf” but each new person that started got the same treatment I had… I would tell them my experience and that the sooner they confronted her the sooner it would stop, but folks just don’t like confrontation and they are trying to stay polite and professional, so it would continue. Very sad to watch!

So I guess I have this personal experience to draw from, should something similar ever come up again. But to folks who are experiencing it for the first time, I see the confusion and frustration I had, and they really don’t know where to turn for info/advice. They want it, they are super worried about how to approach the situation, but they just don’t know where to learn more about it first, and I don’t think they even realize they’re being bullied enough to just Google “bullying in the workplace” or whatever. So if they don’t understand it, how is their boss who is even more removed and not personally experiencing it supposed to?

So, thanks to Dawn for pointing out that many victims of bullying may not even realize that that’s what it is. Life After Adult Bullying has some good advice, although the site does seem to imply that the UK has many more laws to protect workers against this sort of thing than we have in the US.

Finally, while I want all my Bullish ladies to have many options available, you shouldn’t have to ditch a promising job because of one hellbitch bent on destroying you.

One way to keep your options open is to keep a record of the bullying. Make it as detailed as possible, and note who witnessed it. Send emails that may prompt the bully to admit his or her behavior on the record (“I felt that the way you handled our client presentation negatively affected the way clients view our company. I’d like to get on your calendar to talk about it. So-and-so will be sitting in.”)

If you are suffering any medical consequences (ulcers!), get medical records with “stress” or “work-related stress” listed as a cause.

Keep any complaints from customers about the bully, and keep any compliments from customers or managers, or performance reviews of your own work. And, of course, keep them off-site (Google docs, or a thumb drive shaped like a lipstick that no one would ever think contained your data stash.)

Overall, though: Don’t depend entirely on one source of income, or the opinion of one boss. Even if your goals require participation in the 9-to-5 working world, have a plan in your back pocket – if you leave, you start a consultancy, meet all the important people in your field, and leverage that into your next full-time job (or you teach English in Japan, or you have a baby and easily explain away leaving your company, or you go on book leave, or you get an MBA, or you start a line of organic-ice-cream trucks).

Be so good – and so well known! – that it would be easy to hop to another job. (See Bullish: The Nerdy, Reflective Person’s Guide to Networking.)

Be so good that your boss wants to keep you more than she wants to keep the bully.

How do we do that? Don’t plan on other people’s moral codes. If you’re going to play capitalism, really play it. I’m a broken fucking record on that score: develop expertise that can be quantified and documented. Become so good you cannot be denied. Make enough money for organizations that they happily give you some of it – and whatever else you want – so they can make money off of you.

Have you had experiences with workplace bullies? Please offer your tips and experiences in the comments. (No punching and stabbing-related primers, please!)

originally published on The Grindstone