The Equal Opportunity Harasser: Recognizing the Bully in the Office

For each harassment complaint you’ve investigated, odds are you’ve dealt with ten times as many equal opportunity jerks.  The boss who constantly criticizes, demeans, and undermines his employees.  The supervisor who takes delight overworking and exploiting subordinates, or the employee who taunts and intimidates his coworkers.  In short, the workplace bully.

Hypersensitive or Held Hostage?

With the continued escalation in harassment complaints, the last thing H.R. professionals need is another behavior problem to deal with.  And, given the stressful work environment these days, it’s easy to think that rudeness or incivility is an inevitable part of people working together; after all, who hasn’t been snapped at by a stressed-out boss or coworker?

Bullying, though, is not the occasional sharp retort or sarcastic putdown.  Nor is it a misguided attempt to get things done through tough management.  Bullying is an ongoing and systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction.  It tends to be an accumulation of many incidences over a long period of time; on its own, a single incident would not necessarily constitute grounds for disciplinary action.  Taken together, these instances add up to persistent, abusive behavior designed to make the target feel upset, humiliated and threatened.

For example, according to the U.S. Hostile Workforce Survey 2000, the most popular bullying tactics include:

  • blaming others for errors
  • raising false concerns about or criticizing the work of others
  • making unreasonable demands
  • yelling and screaming
  • threats of job loss, insult, or put-downs
  • inconsistent enforcement of arbitrary rules
  • social exclusion
  • stealing credit for another’s work

Studies vary as to who is most likely to be a bully – some studies say that both men and women are equally likely to misbehave while other studies indicate that 70 percent of all bullies are men.  There is little controversy, however, that the bully is most likely to be the boss and that, male or female, the victim is most likely to be female.  There’s also consistent evidence that workplace bullying is common – and that it hurts the bottom line.  In fact, a recent study suggests that simply being a witness to workplace bullying is liked to sleep problems and increased stress.

The Psychology of Bullying Versus Harassment

Unlike illegal forms of harassment and discrimination, bullying isn’t directed at a person because of his or her religion, gender, age, race or other demographic variable.  S/he isn’t interested in obtaining sexual favors or dominating a vulnerable group.  In fact, the target of bullying is most likely to be selected because of her popularity and competence, which is perceived as a direct threat to the bully.

Unlike a sexual harasser’s need to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position, bullying is an effort to control a threat (and prevent exposure of inadequacy).  Unlike the power motive behind harassment and discrimination, envy and jealousy are the primary drivers of bullying behavior.  And, unlike the racial slurs or sexual comments found in illegal forms of harassment, workplace bullying tends to appear as petty criticism, the withholding of critical information, and/or false allegations of underperformance.

Another difference between generic bullying and harassment is the available legal remedies.  U.S. laws aren’t set up to deal with an incompetent or cruel supervisor bullying a subordinate unless it is lid.

However, bullies may not completely escape the long arm of the law.  In the United States, I see more and more stress-related workman’s comp claims and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuits because of workplace bullying.  For example, two employees in Texas were awarded $250,000 in damages after a supervisor continually yelled at them, put his head down and “charged at them like a bull,” and made at least one employee wear a sign that said “I quit.”

Is There a Bully in your Midst?

Having conducted numerous morale investigations for employers, it never ceases to amaze me how one person’s dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization.  Employers may not face the same legal consequences as they would for discriminatory behavior, but the lost productivity and turnover costs are enormous.

Because victims are often afraid to speak out about their experiences and witnesses reluctant to stick their heads out, it can be hard to know if a bully is poisoning your workplace. Here are three ways you can begin to assess how bully-tolerant your work environment currently is:

  1. Conduct an anonymous employee satisfaction survey, asking questions specifically about employee experiences of common bullying tactics.
  2. Conduct regular exit interviews and ask specifically about interpersonal problems that might have led to their resignation.  It can be useful to follow up a few months after the employee has resigned; in my experience, they’re more likely to be candid after some time has elapsed.
  3. Keep track of turnover statistics by department, by manager, and by unit.  If you spot an anomaly, consider hiring an outsider to conduct an independent morale investigation.

Of course, there’s only so much HR can do; bullies thrive where authority is weak.  Until there’s a commitment from top management, a policy is only words on paper and an investigation is meaningless unless there’s some teeth behind it.   Still, as an HR professional, you are in a uniquely powerful position to advocate for employees by showing the powers-that-be why  – and how – bullying in the workplace impacts the bottom line.

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3 Comments on “The Equal Opportunity Harasser: Recognizing the Bully in the Office”

  1. Joanna Trudeau Says:

    Hi,
    Wonderful, insightful article.
    One question, has it been proven that power is not also a motivator in bullying, in addition to the other motivators? Or is is just a lesser motivator?

    I once worked for a screaming,crazy-like-a-fox female bully, and she was all about power (treated her husband & parents like servants) and slept with the VP of sales to gain indirect power over others. His reports dutifully gave her gifts to stay in her good graces.
    In this case, the bully had an unsuspecting (perhaps) ally – the VP of sales. No one said a word. Everyone knew of her behavior and no one spoke of it to Exec. Mgt or HR. Just like people are afraid of the mafia.
    In conclusion, bullys seem to understand power — how to suck up to the powerful and use it against the perceived weaker people.
    You thoughts?


    • Thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog. Yes, power can be a huge motivator for bullying. It’s just not the only one. Most of us don’t think of insecurity over our job skills as a precursor to bullying, but there is some data that suggests that this is so (not all bullies mind you, but some). The practical point of that study is that HR needs to make sure new managers a) are screened for their interpersonal skills before promoted to manager and b) that new managers are given the skills and support they need to succeed.


  2. I read this article, this article very informative and interesting..I refer your blog to many of my friends as well.
    Thanks for sharing knowledge..
    Employee Satisfaction Survey Questions


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