When we were very small, identifying the bully on the playground was easy. They were the ones the other kids were running away from. As we entered junior high and into high school, it was a bit more challenging but no less impossible. They were the Mean Girls (or boys) who left the crumbled self-esteem of their classmates in their wake as they walked the school halls. As adults, workplace bullies are just as prevalent. In the case of working for a bully boss, it is hard to identify easily, as you interview with someone for maybe an hour or two, and accept the job thinking they seemed nice, committed, and professional. You start the job with high hopes, and slowly realize that the Pollyanna that you interviewed with is, in fact, Attila the Hun.
According to the Workplace Bulling Institute, “bullying is a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, the job you once loved. Bullying is a non-physical, non-homicidal form of violence and, because it is violence and abusive, emotional harm frequently results. You may not be the first person to have noticed that you were bullied.” Their 2014 study on bullying found that:
- 27% have current or past direct experience with abusive conduct at work
- 72% of the American public are aware of workplace bullying
- Bosses are still the majority of bullies
- 72% of employers deny, discount, encourage, rationalize, or defend it
It has happened to me twice, and I would have thought that I was not a bully’s mark. While a schoolyard bully will target those they perceive to be weak, I am a leader, social, and competent. I am outspoken, and not afraid to stand my ground. It turns out that my profile, according to the Workplace Bulling Institute, is exactly what an adult bully targets, because in reality they are threatened, insecure, and jealous.
Bully Boss A was maniacal, verbally abusive, and would ask for one thing and then scream at me when I delivered the results, insisting she had asked for something else. If I took vacation, she would assign huge projects two days prior, telling me that if I did not complete the work, I was not allowed to leave. It was like working inside an active volcano. At least I did not take it personally, as she was public in her bullying, did it to most of us, and her entire senior management team left within four months of each other when we collectively decided that the situation was intolerable.
Bully Boss B operated in a subtler but no less sinister manner, conducting her psychological warfare in one-on-one meetings in private conference rooms or scathing emails. While I had great success in the role, she would constantly question my process, telling me it was not how she would do it. When I would ask for suggestions, she would wrinkle her nose, sneer at me, and tell me that I was too stupid to figure it out, yet in front of the rest of the team would say that I was doing a fantastic job and that they could learn a lot from me. Two days after one of my best friends died unexpectedly, Bully Boss #2 informed me that my mourning had better not interfere with my work (truly, she should be afraid of the bad karma from that comment alone). Veteran employees told me that she always had a target, to be patient, and that eventually it would fizzle out. When I stood up for myself in our private meetings and pushed back, she would beat a hasty retreat (as bullies do when confronted), saying that I was good at my job, she loved the quality of my work, and I needed to stop being so sensitive, but soon it would start up again, as cycles of abuse do.
Eventually, my significant other sat me down and suggested that I resign, with the advice that life is too short and I had too much to offer. It was affecting my relationships, my health, and my happiness. I was weepy, twitchy, and in a constant state of panic. To escape quickly, I found two consulting roles to keep me engaged while figuring out my next move. Sadly, during my notice period, I saw that she had moved on from me and found another target, the newest person on the team. Bullies certainly have patterns.
The advice to leave was some of the best I have ever received, because I was never going to change her, and the only way to protect my own sanity was to remove myself from that toxic situation. If you are in a situation with a Bully Boss, get out as soon as possible. You did nothing to cause it and do not deserve this pain. Trust me, there are plenty of well-adjusted, wonderful bosses out there who will value you and your contributions.
Cindy Joyce is the CEO of Pillar Search & HR Consulting. Pillar provides national executive search services for exceptional non-profits and foundations and socially responsible for-profit firms desiring top talent who want an occupassion, not just an occupation. In addition, Pillar offers human resources consulting services including leadership coaching, human resources audits, handbooks, assessing organizational design, training, team building, and employee communications. A woman-owned business, Pillar is based in Boston, MA, and works on both the local and national level. For more information, please visit www.pillarsearch.com or email Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org.