Working For A Boss Who Bullies


By Lisa Belkin | The New York Times
Published: May 8, 2005

DURING one summer break in college, I worked at a print shop. My days were spent collating and stapling – and listening to the manager scream.

She didn't yell directly at me (at least not terribly often) because, I guess, I was temporary and not a threat to her authority. But she chastised and lambasted and verbally eviscerated everyone unfortunate enough to rely on this as a permanent job. I cannot print the things they, in turn, had to say about her when she wasn't in the room.

I found myself thinking of that boss a few weeks ago, when underlings of John R. Bolton started appearing before Congress to say he should not be made ambassador to the United Nations because, in the words of one, he was a "serial abuser" of employees, "a kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy." What saddened me was that I was not surprised. I don't know anything about this particular man, but I do know that bullying bosses are generally allowed to move up the rungs of power, their temper tantrums mistaken for a leadership style.

"I would estimate that one in 10 leaders cross the line into bullying their employees," says Richard S. Wellins, a senior vice president at Development Dimensions International, who has for 34 years provided "antibullying training" to business executives.

Judith E. Glaser, author of "Creating We: Change I-Thinking to WE-Thinking and Build a Healthy, Thriving Organization" (Platinum Press, 2005), agrees. "They are everywhere," she said. Ms. Glaser, who coaches high-level executives who need to improve their behavior, defines bullying as "threatening, intimidating or embarrassing people who work for you."

Bullying in the office looks a lot like bullying on the playground, she says, except that the abuse is almost always verbal rather than physical and there is a paycheck rather than milk money at stake.

Consider two stories sent by readers.

"I had taken a one-day vacation in order to visit my uncle who was dying of lung cancer and placed in a hospice program," says an e-mail message from a woman who works in hospital administration. "I received a call on my cell from the director screaming and yelling at me as I stood by my uncle's deathbed. She completely forgot that she approved my time off." Her supervisor, the woman said, was too afraid of the director to explain.

A second woman, on the admissions staff of a private school, said her boss "would explode unexpectedly at me (I suspect she liked to see me jump) with false accusations which I would immediately deny."

"When I did, she would berate me even more."

How to handle a working relationship like this? The employee at the private school consulted a job coach, who told her to do the equivalent of lying down and playing dead. When the boss started complaining, the employee threw her arms out in supplication and proclaimed: "I am soooooo sorry. What can I do to change this?" The boss, she said, retreated in confusion.

The second employee went not to a coach but to a therapist. She stayed in her job, spent money to complain about that job once a week, and finally quit after a year.

Many bullied employees quit. What they do not do is sue, because bullying is technically not against the law. Statutes prohibit sexual harassment, racial harassment and physical assault at work, but specialists in the field tell me that unless a rampaging boss boils over into one of those areas, he has, in a legal sense, done nothing wrong.

But he has done nothing much that is right, either. One can hope that when the political smoke clears on Mr. Bolton's nomination, the hearings will have done for workplace harassment what the Clarence Thomas hearings did for sexual harassment – raise the profile, get the conversation going, maybe even lead to some laws with teeth.

I would like to think that some of this has already begun, in a place possibly more important than the legislature: executive office suites. Steven M. Paskoff, a business consultant and author of "Teaching Big Shots to Behave and Other Human Resource Challenges," says bosses bully because the internal culture considers it the norm.

"Companies always ask me what they can do to make these people 'get it,' " he says of the times he has been called in to help curb a bully's behavior. "But it's not as if these individuals don't understand that their bullying behavior is inappropriate. They understand. They just don't care. For one reason or another, they believe the rules don't apply to them."

Many of you wrote after my last column, asking for specifics. I said I started work at The Times a week before computers were installed. For the record, I meant the week before desktop computers were installed in the Washington bureau (the New York newsroom started using a computerized word processing system in 1975). The desktops and I arrived in the summer of 1982.

This column about the intersection of jobs and personal lives appears every other week. E-mail: Belkin@nytimes.com.

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