Bullies can sometimes be bosses
Nearly everyone who has had a job could tell a funny story or two about a bad boss.
Consider the story about a New Age supervisor that is posted on The Business Research Lab Web site, an employee research company that solicits tales about crazy bosses:
"A boss of mine (I was the chief of a catering company in San Francisco), during a performance review said, 'You are not doing anything wrong per se; there is just this intangible vibe that I can't really describe that is keeping me from feeling like you deserve a raise."
But for workers faced with a truly abusive boss, the experience is no laughing matter.
Indeed, during the past five years, the economic cost of bullying has become an increasing area of interest among psychologists and management, leadership and organizational researchers.
Abusive behaviors are defined as everything from the silent treatment to aggressive eye contact to name-calling to threats of job loss.
Researchers are hoping recent studies, particularly those that attempt to put dollar costs on abusive behaviors, will find application in the business world.
A study by Joel H. Neuman, director of the Center for Applied Management at the State University of New York in New Paltz, shows bullying results in losses of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in terms of absenteeism, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, product quality and productivity.
Some organizations are paying attention, experts say.
"I think as the economy has turned down, companies want to improve employee satisfaction in ways that don't have to do with money," said Gregg Campa, director of client relations with The Business Research Lab in Houston, Texas. "They know it's important to their bottom line."
But Kurt Landgraf doesn't buy it.
Landgraf is president of Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., and former chief executive of DuPont Pharmaceuticals, acquired in 2001 by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.
"We don't sell $8 billion worth of antidepressants in this country for nothing," Landgraf said. "I think most organizations all talk about how much they care. But the real fact of the matter is, the corporate culture is so accepting of these kinds of aggressive actions, it's not going to go away."
Some scholars now are suggesting that the competitive and rapidly changing work world may be breeding more abusive behaviors as bosses come under more stress.
"You can go back 100 years in the literature. Stress leads to aggression," Neuman said.
Workplaces that have competitive reward structures - where managers compete for promotions, salaries, benefits, recognition and office space - tend to promote political behavior and abuse.
"The higher you go in an organization, the competition becomes ferocious. It can get pretty nasty," Neuman said.
That aggression, in turn, sometimes is passed on to subordinates.
Research done by Karl Aquino, an associate professor of management at the University of Delaware, indicates that the increasing number of younger managers in the workplace can contribute to abusive behaviors.
"With age, people are better able to handle stress or mistreatment without passing it down," said Aquino. "It's well-known that younger people tend to act out in a way that can be construed as aggressive."Gary Namie, a psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., and author of "The Bully at Work," said his 2000 study found that 16.8 percent of workers report being mistreated by their bosses.
Namie, who got into the field after his wife was bullied on the job, said bad bosses have always been around. But until 30 years ago, people were simply conditioned to take abuse on the job.
"People were expected to swallow it and shut up," Namie said. "It's a self-subordination thing."In fact, almost no one studied abusive workplace behaviors and their health and economic consequences before 1970, scholars said.
In the 1990s, well-publicized acts of workplace violence by disgruntled employees helped to create today's focus on bullying bosses and aggression, Aquino said.
Kelly L. Zellars, a management professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who co- authored a recent study on abusive supervision and organizational citizenship, said hundreds of people are studying the problem.
"There's a movement in this country that, when you go to work, it's not to be abused," Zellars said.
The U.S movement, however, is behind what has happened in other countries, experts say.
The United Kingdom, for example, has a workplace-bullying law. In Germany, the issue is referred to as "mobbing," Neuman said.
Often, targets don't fight
Research suggests both men and women can be bullies. But in 75 percent of cases, women are the victims of the abuse. In fact, female bullies target other women 84 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Hostile Workplace Survey 2000, conducted by The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute, where Namie is research director.
Zellars said women are targets more often because they tend not to fight back.
"Let's face it, no one is going to abuse someone who can prove them wrong," she said.
Namie, who often serves as an expert witness in abuse cases, said targets are always blindsided by a bully boss because victims tend to be focused on their work. Targets tend not to be political animals, laboring under the belief they can stay above the office fray.
"They are always surprised when the bullying starts. They have this belief that if they do good work it's a fair and just world," Namie said.
Targets are usually noncon-frontational so they wait too long to complain. They hope the abuse will blow over, Namie said.
As for the bully, researchers do make a distinction between a challenging boss and an abusive one.
A challenging boss will make employees stretch, but within a support system. The support could include more training, help from a more experienced co-worker and a greater tolerance of mistakes.
An abusive boss will make unreasonable goals with no support.
Bullies often target competent people who make them feel threatened, Namie said. Independent people who are well-liked in the office also are vulnerable to the office bully.
"Bullies will go after someone who is better liked," Namie said.
The hostile-workplace survey found that 80 percent of victims reported they were unable to be productive at work because of anxiety, loss of concentration or sleeplessness.
Other studies have shown a high rate of absenteeism among workers who believe they are being treated unfairly.
Another, less tangible fallout from abuse might come in terms of withholding positive actions that help the company, according to Zellars' study.
Zellars and two co-researchers have shown that workers even the score by taking little subversive actions that undermine the company but for which they can't be punished.
Employees might, for example, denigrate their company at a dinner party. Or they might withhold good actions that benefit the organization, such as helping a co-worker.
"People will get you. They find a way to fight back in subtle little ways. The easiest way is to be less productive," Landgraf said. "I've seen it in so many ways my whole career."
Some employees are not conscious of what they are doing in response to perceived injustices, Zellars said. Nevertheless, it can be as damaging to a company as direct acts of sabotage.
For example, if an employee speaks badly of his company at a community meeting, it could result in the loss of goodwill among potential customers and employees. It takes years for an organization to recover from this, Zellars said.
"When people change jobs they turn to their peers to find out about an organization," she said.Zellars believes that, as companies look to differentiate themselves from the competition, employee satisfaction will play an important role.
She said Southwest Airlines and Lands' End are two companies that are standouts for creating good environments. These companies screen potential hires for their interpersonal skills, she said. What's more, they train people in good citizenship behaviors.
But Namie, who has counseled 4,300 targets of abuse, doesn't believe companies will weed out the bad eggs.
He says his research has shown that in only 7 percent of abuse cases were the bullies punished, transferred or terminated. Bullying usually stops when the target leaves their job, he said.
"Companies will never say they have a problem," Namie said.
Reach Maureen Milford at 324-2881 or email@example.com.
BULLYING AT A GLANCE
. Most co-workers know when someone is being abused, with 96 percent aware of the bullying.
. Psychological violence lasts 16.5 months on average.
. Most bullying isn't illegal conduct. In only 8 percent of cases was the victim in a legally protected employee classification (such as disabled or minority) and the bully wasn't.
. Sixty-seven percent of victims report they had no prior history of being bullied.. Forty-one percent of people who are bullied are diagnosed with depression.
. Thirty-one percent of women who are bullied experience post-traumatic stress disorder.. Bullies rarely suffer career consequences because in 42 percent of cases the bully's supervisor helped the bad boss or punished the victim.
. Eleven percent of co-workers side with the bully.
Source: U.S. Hostile Workplace Survey 2000
When it's dog-eat-dog, underdogs need help
Gary Namie, author of "The Bully at Work," offers these suggestions for people who are being bullied:
1. Name the abuse. Call it psychological violence or emotional abuse or bullying,
2. Bully-proof yourself. Tell your co-workers because they can be witnesses to
3. Get away from the bully. Begin taking steps to get a transfer or find another
4. Expose the bully. Try to build a rational case that shows the negative impact