The Indian Economy Blog

July 16, 2007

The Workplace Bully

Filed under: Business,Health,Human Capital,Labour market — Shefaly @ 9:44 pm

“What sort of a woman are you? When this child was born, it seems she was born with your brain, so you have none left.”

These were the words of a manager I once had. Let’s call him “M”. Luckily – for me, that is – these words were spoken by him to his wife, an educated woman but a full time mother, in full hearing and view of a few engineers from work. Those of us, who comprehended what was said, were too stunned to speak. Others probably did not hear, or, out of conditioning or of acute embarrassment, continued picking on snacks as if nothing had happened.

Needless to say this language, this attitude of total disrespect, and an apparent objective to humiliate everyone was not confined to M’s home. They were all duly brought to work, where employees’ parents, their brains, their education etc were all routinely dredged out when there was no context for all this. These verbal assaults were regular, unstinting and conducted in reporting relationships with a clear power imbalance. Reporting to him, I received weekly threats that my next salary would be withheld and that I will lose my job because many were ‘dying to take it, you know’. The consequence was that while I carried on at work as usual, I lost weight and regularly threw up due to distress.

M was an unadulterated, purebred bully.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well simply so that those of you, who suffer in silence, know that it *is* possible to recover from such bullying and come out unscathed and even look back on it as a bad dream. Because there are ways to cope, knowing that there is a time to escalate and there is a time to exit.

Bullying is not pleasant. It can take many forms but always involves some mix of denigration, criticism, humiliation, coercion and insults. It is not always easy to identify a bully. Many bullies employ a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona, have a volatile but manipulative personality, are generally insecure and arrogant, and the biggest test of them all – when questioned directly, either turn into meek mice or deny everything.

The effects of bullying are a veritable mix and none of them is pleasant, for the sufferer of bullying or his/ her family. High levels of stress and anxiety are common as are frequent illnesses, pains, exhaustion, sleeplessness,concentration and other memory related issues, panic attacks, depression and reduced self-esteem.

So how does one deal with a workplace bully? Well here are some lessons I have learnt through my experiences:

* Ascertain the pattern, if you are being bullied. What precipitates these verbal assaults? Are there particular settings? Are there particular times of the year (for instance, heads of sales may be under target pressure by year-end; you do not have to be understanding but it helps to understand the source of the bad behaviours)? The best way is to keep a diary with dates, places, incidents and content of the monologues (almost always). Remember if someone else is losing their head, you do not have to follow their example.

* Try and address it first with the bully. Be specific about the examples you use: the setting, the content of the conversation, the feelings you experienced. Many bullies are essentially insecure people, who do not always do well in 1-to-1 challenges. In many cases, you will find the bully may not apologise but he or she will back down. In other cases, such peace will, alas, not come to pass.

* Thoroughly assess the procedures – if any – in your firm for escalation and formal complaint. Be aware that if the bully is senior enough, many a time, firms will prefer to retain him or her over you.

* Escalate formally, if your organisational context allows and encourages it. Be prepared to stand your ground, especially because escalation procedures often distress those who escalate. Your office ‘friends’ may not want to hang out with you during this time, so make sure to have plenty of support available outside. Be prepared too, that the organisation may ask you to leave and you need to have a back-up, especially if your family depends on you.

* If you are vindicated, good for you! You may have conducted a great signalling exercise within the organisation at great personal cost, but many others may thank you for it. However if you have to leave, make sure the papers are all in order and do not show that there was some performance or individual issues, which blame you. Obtain a clear official reference from the company which certifies your work, designation and duration at the company.

* Next time you see a bully, be prepared to stand up for the bullied. Not everyone is as courageous as you are.

You probably want to know how I coped with M.

Well, I didn’t. I was very young. My company did not have a formal complaints mechanism. I was sapped of all my energy and my self-preservation instinct kicked in. I quit. Upon receiving my resignation, the man, who had assured me that many were lined up to take my job, phoned and asked me why I was leaving, whether it was the money or if the challenge was not enough for someone of my calibre. He tried to cajole me to stay by offering a carrot of a salary revision and offer of a holiday (that I did not take a day off in a year was not brought up). I stayed calm and told him that it was in his interest to let me leave on my terms, because if I were forced to articulate any more than ‘personal reasons’, he might regret it. In Europe they do not take kindly to mental harassment and bullying, particularly if it involves a male manager and a female subordinate.

I have experienced at least 2 more bullies since then. On both occasions, I was representing my clients’ interests in negotiations, so there was no exit option. On both occasions, I stood up – literally and figuratively – and declared the discussions adjourned until the lost tempers and reason were found. Surprisingly the bullies backed down, apologised and normally scheduled programming resumed.

M continued to build his career within the company and now works for a reputable organisation in the same industry in the USA. I hope he has changed his ways. In the USA, the way to the cleaners may be remarkably short, especially if someone is dragging you all the way up there with a stop-over at the courts…

PS: This post was written mainly because in the comments to my earlier post on mental health, Little Indian asked if I would write something about workplace bullying. I may not have addressed how Indian managers deal with it, but the story I relate above involved an Indian manager (“M”) with an Indian subordinate (me). The story could have taken place anywhere but my main aim was to help you be aware if you or someone else is a victim of bullying. Don’t wait to let the bully destroy you; deal with it.

13 Comments »

  1. [...] Shefaly on workplace bullies and how to deal with them. [...]

    Pingback by DesiPundit » Archives » The WorkPlace Bully — July 17, 2007 @ 3:25 am

  2. Is this really a post that should be on the Indian Economy blog? It seems more appropriate for a self-help website: “you too can stand up to bullying”. It’s very tangentially related to anything about the Indian economy.

    Comment by Haku — July 17, 2007 @ 5:03 am

  3. I agree with Haku. While the article per se may be useful to several people, this is not the appropriate forum for it. Can we have more posts on the economy please?

    Comment by Mark — July 17, 2007 @ 5:44 am

  4. A recent McKinsey Quarterly article calculates TCJ (total cost of jerks) in the workplace and if it is anything to go by, then it is shocking to see the amount of cost(in attrition, anger management training, job/team rotation in case of complaints etc)an employer bears to keep a jerk in employment.
    Also, when hiring managers select a candidate, they look for so-called ‘hard’ leadership skills and in the bargain lose out on the ‘soft’ people skills that are imperative in becoming a good leader.

    Comment by Shreyasi — July 17, 2007 @ 8:35 am

  5. Very nice piece. I guess all of us have experienced it in some form or the other at a degree higher or lower. I experienced it in my previous job and the situation was not very pleasent as I am male and the manager was female.

    Comment by navin harish — July 17, 2007 @ 12:41 pm

  6. indian managers are feudal,petty,personal,parochial & encroaching. No doubt about it.
    quit when you can as personal happiness is far more valuable than need for gizmos. Personal scars- costs that economists have not been able to ascertain – can take a heavy toll later on in your life.

    Comment by andiron — July 17, 2007 @ 5:51 pm

  7. Shefaly,
    Thanks for this great post. I always had this theory that it’s the incapables and the insecure who become workplace bullies. Your experience confirmed my observation.

    Comment by Santhosh — July 17, 2007 @ 6:14 pm

  8. I agree to the fact that this situation is likely in many cases. what is needed is an institutionalised process of training on workplace harassment, sexual harassment etc. Including it in induction programs and other training programs in organisations is essential to drive home the point. I think this not practised in most organisations.

    Comment by Balaji — July 17, 2007 @ 6:25 pm

  9. [...] Shefaly at The Indian Economy Blog writes on dealing with workplace bullies. Needless to say this language, this attitude of total disrespect, and an apparent objective to humiliate everyone was not confined to M’s home. They were all duly brought to work, where employees’ parents, their brains, their education etc were all routinely dredged out when there was no context for all this. These verbal assaults were regular, unstinting and conducted in reporting relationships with a clear power imbalance. Reporting to him, I received weekly threats that my next salary would be withheld and that I will lose my job because many were ‘dying to take it, you know’. The consequence was that while I carried on at work as usual, I lost weight and regularly threw up due to distress. [...]

    Pingback by DesiPundit » Archives » The Workplace Bully — July 17, 2007 @ 10:15 pm

  10. How To deal with Bullies in your workplace…

    “those of you, who suffer in silence, know that it *is* possible to recover from such bullying and come out unscathed and even look back on it as a bad dream. Because there are ways to cope, knowing that there is a time to escalate and there is a time…

    Trackback by ekjut.com — July 18, 2007 @ 11:11 am

  11. Excellent points on workplace ethic. However, I agree with others that this is not the right forum for this topic. I request posters to be a little more specific to the topic – “Indian Economy”.

    Comment by Girish Mallapragada — July 19, 2007 @ 9:07 pm

  12. A belated Thanks to all those, who shared their views on this post. I see that any digression from discussions of the economy (the latest one being posts on returning to Mumbai from New York by one contributor) is seen as some kind of betrayal of its readership.

    After I posted this, my in-box overflowed with emails from friends and acquaintances, some of whom hold senior roles in the booming Indian Economy today and some of whom hold similarly senior roles outside India in multilateral organisations. Each of them found the post cathartic and many said they had suffered bullying at the hands of managers and colleagues in their shiny, multinational workplaces, but they did not know to whom they could turn.

    In some cases, people admitted that their performance suffered; yet others said that harassment was so evident yet people treated the tormented party as the guilty one.

    If anything sustainable is to be created, people skills will easily trump any analytical prowess. To that extent, this post may or may not have been about hard policy, but it touched a chord with those who are shaping the Indian Economy today. That was my aim and I imagine that is also the aim of those who started this blog – to create dialogue through the kind of writing that is not commonplace but that addresses urgent and important issues.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Shefaly — July 31, 2007 @ 2:40 pm

  13. It appears that the relationship between bullying and productivity is more real than can be imagined. Perhaps some of the unconvinced quants wish to undertake a longitudinal study of the phenomenon?

    A recent study found that 64.2 percent of the respondents indicated that either nothing at all or something positive happened to a bad leader. Despite their success in the office, spiteful supervisors can cause serious malaise for their subordinates, the study suggested, citing nightmares, insomnia, depression and exhaustion as symptoms of serving a brutal boss. The authors advocated immediate intervention by industry chiefs to stop fledgling office authoritarians from rising up the ranks.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/oddlyEnoughNews/idUSN0230737820070803

    Comment by Shefaly — August 4, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

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