Grown Up Mean Girls: Bullies in the Workplace

Published: August 15, 2012 Author: Clearpoint Tags: Manager's Corner, Working and Workplaces

[caption id="attachment_328" align="alignright" width="300" caption="© Sophia Winters -"][/caption]

Lately we've all become more aware of the consequences of unchecked bullying in schools. Scary cases have appeared in the news, and the movies Bully and (less recently) Mean Girls brought the topic to the big screen.

When bullies grow up they sometimes bring their abusive behavior to the workplace. I personally know grown women who have been brought to tears and had anxiety attacks because of workplace bullies - I mean GROWN women, who have raised 5 children, and are 10 - 20 years + into their careers.

What is Workplace Bullying?

Bullying in schools is something more than just aggressive playing that crosses a line. In the same way, workplace bullying is in a different category from occasional bad behavior by a boss or co-worker.

Workplace bullies target specific people with abuse, which can include yelling, cursing, humiliating, and even threatening the person. Bullies intentionally and repeatedly engage in the abusive behavior to demean the person and/or create an intimidating, oppressive atmosphere that drains the victim's confidence and power. (See our related post about how workplace bullying is defined in the United States.)

I've been surprised to find out that workplace bullying is more common than most of us think. Bullying can occur even with the knowledge of management, leaving victims feeling isolated and without recourse.

If there are bullies in your workplace, you can be sure that they are damaging your company in several ways:

  • Lower productivity as employee attention shifts from meaningful performance to office power struggles
  • Tension and fear among employees, even those not being bullied
  • Staff turnover and associated costs of hiring and training
  • Stress-related health problems among employees
  • Absenteeism
  • Exposure to lawsuits

Spotting the Bully

So how do you know if your workplace has a bully? People act badly sometimes and it doesn't always mean bullying is taking place. Here are two examples that I know of personally that illustrate degrees of bullying behavior:

Story 1: Let's (Not) Do Lunch

An experienced employee had been hired to function as project manager on several initiatives that were already underway. After some time on the job, he found himself being systematically excluded from group activities by his co-workers. At first it was a case of everyone on the team going out to lunch and not including him. Later he discovered that meetings were being held without his knowledge, yet he was held accountable when he lacked the information discussed. The employee eventually grew frustrated and resigned.

In this example, the behavior of the co-workers sabotaged the employee in a manner that was unprofessional, rude, and damaging to the organization. It could be considered bullying, particularly if the perpetrators persistently targeted one person in this way.

Managers should be on the lookout for aggressive behavior like this, put an end to it, and nurture a company culture that is respectful, inclusive, and productive. In this case, the bad actors cost the organization dearly when they drove away a high performing employee. (For more about what managers can do, see our third post in this series about workplace bullying.)

Story 2: Worst Boss? Or Worst Boss Ever?

A bright and energetic young woman was hired to join a manufacturing company's sales team. She observed that the owner routinely used aggressive behavior and language in managing the rest of his sales staff. Most of them had learned the business as line workers and had advanced to the higher paying sales positions. They were used to the owner's loud tirades and foul language, but endured figuring they didn't have a choice. After all, their entire work history was with this one company.

The new employee was never the target of the abuse, but she found it intimidating and confusing. Not wanting to become a target by association, she steered clear of the owner's favorite victims even though some of them were people who could help her learn to be successful.

After some time at the company, the young saleswoman attended a meeting where the owner was berating a co-worker, in this case a productive employee with 10+ years of experience, for making a mistake in spec'ing a job. When the owner literally threated to take the man out to the shop and hang him, she had heard enough. She went home that day, emailed in her resignation, and never returned.

The bully's victim stayed on, and might even still work there. It didn't matter that the owner asked the saleswoman to stay and reassured her he would never treat her similarly. She correctly identified the workplace as harmful and left before the bully could manipulate and control her as he had done with his other employees.

What to Do

If you are targeted by a workplace bully, don't suffer silently. These days we are all much more aware of bullies and the damage they can do. If you are a Clearpoint employee, talk to us right away and tell us what is happening. As your employer, part of my job is to make sure your workplace is safe and healthy.

If you are not a Clearpoint employee, seek out some of the many online resources that can help you deal with the situation and maintain your dignity. I've listed some below to point you in the right direction.

Most of all, remember that professionals who are competent and secure in their abilities never resort to mistreating others as a way of affirming their own status. To do so says a lot more about the perpetrator than the victim.

Related posts

Workplace Bullying and Harrassment - What's the Difference?

Why and How to Prevent Workplace Bullying


The Silent Epidemic: Workplace Bullying

Workplace Bullying Institute

Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: What Everyone Needs to Know

How to Handle a Workplace Bully

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