“We focused a lot on outcomes at work- in particular, numbers and quota’s. I not only reached my quota but surpassed it. My supervisor squashed my partnership with the business I had been working with and my numbers instantly dropped. She didn’t tell me why I couldn’t work with them just that I was forbidden to.” ~ Anonymous Female, 47 yrs., Professional
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) identifies and defines workplace bullying as “repeated, unreasonable or inappropriate behaviour directed towards a worker, or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety”, and workplace harassment as “behaviour that engages “a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.”
In 2007, the Workplace Bullying Institute (U.S.) released a survey indicating that 37% of workers were bullied. The survey also showed that while males will bully other males and females in equal number, 70% of female bullies went after their own gender; 40% of bullied individuals never tell their employers and 62% of employers informed about workplace bullying ignore the problem or don’t know what to do, normalizing the behaviour; and 45% of targets suffer stress-related health problems.
“Having been continually micromanaged by having all emails I sent for work read daily by my manager, receiving an email from her during a conference call meant for someone else saying she hated even the sound of my voice, and disrespecting my many more years of experience and knowledge than hers, I was terminated with the words that I ‘no longer fit the direction of the agency’. She handed me a severance package which I reviewed and clearly stated I would like time to read and process the documents overnight. She and her cohort kept talking and running in and out. She then asked me to sign a short page that said I had received the information which I did sign as that was a truth. The next day when I called in I was told that I had actually signed the severance package. They manipulated the pages to show only what was wanted to be seen by me. The ultimate in harassment. Sadly she had other targets too.” ~ Anonymous Female, Professional, 53 yrs.
In Canada it is the legal duty of an employer to ensure that employees are not exposed to harassment, violence or bullying. In recent years there has been a greater push through legislative amendments to ensure from employers and managers greater accountability to mentally safe work environments.
But what happens when the workplace bully is the boss?
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, in situations where 35% of the American workforce directly experienced bullying-or “repeated mistreatment in the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance” that approximately 72% of those bullies are bosses.
“I watched something beautiful that I built up from scratch be torn down by a self-serving supervisor. She came on board part way through an initiative and she was trying to fill some big shoes. She lied about myself and my co-workers. Fortunately, the rest of my team had the sense to copy all of our emails before she had them wiped from the system.” ~ Anonymous Female, Professional, 37 yrs.
Dr. Gary Namie co-founder of the above mentioned institute found that there are 25 bullying tactics reported by targeted employees:
- Falsely accusing someone of “errors” not actually made.
- Staring, glaring, being nonverbally intimidating and clearly showing hostility.
- Discounting the person’s thoughts or feelings (“oh, that’s silly”) in meetings.
- Using the “silent treatment” to “ice out” and separate from others.
- Exhibiting presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group.
- Making up own rules on the fly that even she/he does not follow.
- Disregarding satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence.
- Harshly and constantly criticizing having a different ‘standard’ for the target.
- Starting, or failing to stop, destructive rumors or gossip about the person.
- Encouraging people to turn against the person being tormented.
- Singling out and isolating one person from co-workers, either socially or physically.
- Publicly displaying “gross,” undignified, but not illegal, behavior.
- Yelling, screaming, and throwing tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person.
- Stealing credit for work done by others.
- Abusing the evaluation process by lying about the person’s performance.
- Rebelling for failing to follow arbitrary commands.
- Using confidential information about a person to humiliate privately or publicly.
- Retaliating against the person after a complaint was filed.
- Making verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent or language, disability.
- Assigning undesirable work as punishment.
- Making undoable demands– workload, deadlines, duties — for person singled out.
- Launching a baseless campaign to oust the person.
- Encouraging the person to quit or transfer rather than to face more mistreatment.
- Sabotaging the person’s contribution to a team goal and reward.
- Ensuring failure of person’s project by not performing required tasks: signoffs, taking calls, working with collaborators.
There is always politics around my office, but the other day something surfaced to management that needed to be addressed and dealt with. A co-worker was working on something in the office that wasn’t quite allowed. I found out that I was named and blamed for “leaking” to management about my co-worker. Instead of handling the situation politely and with some maturity, I was snapped at by my co-worker. I had no idea where she was coming from or what she was taking about. She said, ‘let’s talk in the back room. Let’s go.’ So I did. Then I found out I was being blamed for the “leak” to management. I tried to explain to her that I had no idea how it got to management or escalated so far. Instead of listening to me I was talked over and told, ‘listen I am 50 years old and I don’t need games. Quit playing your games with me or we will have a problem. You leaked and I don’t need you spreading shit around this office. You are NOT to be trusted. You are young and new and maybe you feel you can do whatever you want, but you can’t. I’m 50 and tired of playing games and there will be trouble if this continues. Don’t be a little rat at the table.’ Again, I have no idea how I had a part in any of this. Maybe I made a comment? That was brought up to management? But it was harmless if so and I wasn’t given the chance to say otherwise. She was the elder and a mother and felt she could dominate the discussion when we ‘had words’. I felt bullied and talked over, like my youth was the reason why I couldn’t have a say. ~Anonymous Female, Professional, 27 yrs.
The Workplace Bullying Institute explored the impact of bullying on the targets’ health. Upon asking respondents to complete a 33-item symptoms checklist, WBI found that the top five health problems among those bullied at work are: anxiety (76%), loss of concentration (71%), disrupted sleep (71%), hypervigilance symptoms (60%), and stress headaches (55%).
My intention for this article was to focus on workplace bullying or harassment in general. However, when I put out a call for friends to share their experiences, only women came forward. And I wasn’t too surprised when they all told me that their bully was a woman in a managerial or supervisory role.
That is not to say that men do not experience or dispense bullying in the workplace but there does seem to be a documented phenomenon of woman bullying woman in the workplace.
In a Forbes article, Dr. Namie stated that, “Women make much nastier office bullies than men.” Namie went on to say that girls are taught to be critical about each other from adolescence and it’s particularly vicious among working women from playing favourites to badmouthing colleagues. Common careers where we can see this behaviour play out is “in law, finance or any other job where women feel the need to be hyper-aggressive to get ahead in a male dominated environment.”
“I had the misfortune of working under a terribly insecure woman for just over a year. As a woman myself I wanted her to be successful- I wished for her to be more than the 14 year old drama queen she turned out to be. She lied for no reason, played colleagues off one another, mocked our clients and caused our small office to turn our stress levels on one another. In retrospect, it’s obvious she had some serious confidence issues, but she caused a lot of damage in a short period of time. I loathe that woman. It’s a horrible feeling to go to work every day and have to walk on eggshells because someone else’s ego is too fragile to handle their own shortcomings.” ~ Anonymous Female, 30 yrs., Professional
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) defines bulling as acts or verbal comments that could mentally hurt or isolate a person in the workplace. It can involve repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people. It has also been described as the assertion of power through aggression.
OHS also states that bullying tactics may include setting up employees for failure, removing areas of responsibility without a cause, assigning unreasonable duties or workloads which are unfavourable to one person, yelling, intimidating a person and undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work.
Does that sound like anyone you know? I can think of a few people.
“I remember in one particular position I was appalled by my supervisor’s behaviour. It was anything but professional. We’d be sitting around the table in a meeting and she would roll her eyes when I said something or she would make faces and try to engage eye contact with others at the table while doing so. Eventually, she had no problem leaning across the table to yell at me and shake her finger at me. It was absurd. And shocking that nobody around the table had the balls to address what was happening.” ~ Steffanie Petroni
In dealing with bulling or harassing situation at work OHS does not advise late night emails to employers or managers after a bottle of Merlot, but rather recommends that individuals who think they’re being bullied tell the person to stop, keep a factual journal of dates, incidents and witnesses, to keep copies of all letters, emails etc. and to report this type of harassment as per workplace policy. If concerns are minimized then proceed to the next level of management.
“I worked for an entertainment venue. I was a cashier basically. Even though it was my job, my manager would take over my float at the end of my shift –she would make the deposit. Well, money started to go missing from my float. I was coming up short. It was a little each time and then the amounts got larger. I started getting nervous –that’s a crime. I’m not sure why she was picking out of my float but she didn’t like me. She just didn’t like the attention I got from our customers, our regulars I think. I just quit. She was friends with our employer so nobody was going to believe that she was the one stealing from the deposit every night.” ~ Anonymous Female, 22yrs.
For those reading this who are thinking “toughen up”, you could be right- by default at least. As a Globe and Mail article articulates so well, “despite statutory definitions and workplace policies attempting to define this behaviour, it is still usually a matter of perception. A tough boss to one employee is often a bully to another.”
Various complaints of bullying by employers or managers before the Courts have demonstrated that “the threshold to find employers liable for psychiatric damage suffered by employees is a high one” and “an employer’s conduct must be deemed extreme, flagrant or outrageous and calculated to deliberately impose harm”. Unless the behaviour of the employer or manager can be objectively found by the Court to be bullying or harassing there is no compensation for employees. Translation: You might be stuck with a cantankerous boss.
Though I’ve had a couple of brushes with nasty bosses -who were, yes, women, over the past twenty-five years, I’ve also had the good fortune of being mentored by some amazing women. They offered me constructive criticism, focused on my strengths and forgave me when I screwed up. And if those women are reading this, -and they know who they are, thank you.
Need to talk to someone about a workplace situation? Contact the Ontario Ministry of Labour: 1-877-202-0008. Calling out of province? Phone: 1-800-531-5551