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by Anita Chabria | March 10, 2009

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Daniel Walker's boss had a nickname for him: the Village Idiot. He called him that at department meetings whenever Walker - a 36-year-old group manager - made a suggestion, and when he talked about Walker with other employees at the Southern California high-tech manufacturing company.

But the harassment didn't stop there. Walker's boss frequently screamed profanities at him in public, refused to share critical information on deadlines and productivity goals and gave Walker and his subordinates conflicting instructions.

"It was little things like that all the time," remembers Walker, who has since moved to a new job to escape his boss. "I just felt like I was there for him to thrash."

Workplace bullying is an experience that one out of five employees - 23 million people - will deal with at some point during their careers, according to a Wayne State University study. It doesn't just make for a hard day at the office. Being the victim of a brutal boss leads to clinical depression in 41 percent of victims, according to a survey by Bullybusters.org, an online nonprofit in Benicia, Calif., that advises victims of workplace abuse. The behavior also causes sleep disorders, ulcers, high blood pressure and even post-traumatic stress disorder. It eats away at self-confidence and leaves victims feeling inadequate and isolated.

Bullying is also bad for business. Studies show that overly aggressive bosses cause high turnover rates, reduced productivity and increased employee absences. But separating the bullies from the tough operators is a difficult and unpopular task, especially in high-tech and Internet industries where stress is considered a motivator and demanding higher-ups are the norm. And the victims are often hesitant to come forward, fearing that others will see them as weak or incompetent.

"It's a silent epidemic in U.S. business," claims Gary Namie, head of Bullybusters.

TOUGH GUY OR TERRORIST?

Paul Westlund worked his way up from temporary technician to the lead of the software development department at a San Francisco Bay Area payroll company before he ran into his bully. He says a new manager targeted him for abuse after Westlund defended a co-worker the manager was yelling at in public. After that, Westlund became the target.

~His boss began finding small ways to harass him and make his job more difficult, says Westlund. He reduced Westlund's security clearance from 24-7 to business hours but refused to give a reason. He told Westlund's subordinates to ignore his instructions. And he gave him written warnings for mistakes Westlund says were fabricated.

That systematic attempt to undermine a target's work performance is one of the key factors separating a bully from a fair-but-demanding superior, says Namie. Bullies use a pattern of small and insidious events over a prolonged period of time. Each act by itself may not seem abusive, but the cumulative effect makes the work environment intolerable, he explains."Tough bosses draw a line in the sand: They say, 'Here are the goals you need to reach, and if you don't reach them here are the consequences,'" says Columbia University Professor Emeritus Harvey Hornstein, author of Brutal Bosses and Their Prey. By contrast, bully bosses see information as power and use it to intimidate and impair their targets.

Namie of Bullybusters compares workplace bullying to domestic violence. In both situations, the victims often blame themselves, and their self-esteem suffers.

That was true for Westlund. The experience eroded his self-confidence and left him depressed and bitter, he says. Going to work made him feel like a "trapped animal."

"I enjoyed what I did and I wanted the place to be successful," notes the 36-year-old. "But I had to shut down to handle this guy. I felt so used. It changed my life."

BULLIED TO DEATH

The consequences of bullying can also be physical. For one midlevel manager at a large computer-software company in the Bay Area, being the target of a bully led to serious health problems.

"I was having nightmares and insomnia, I gained a lot of weight and I developed back problems," recalls the 45-year-old woman, who doesn't want to be named. Her bully was a female supervisor who had gone through five people in the victim's position in the previous year, she says.

~The woman often dreamed her boss held other employees at gunpoint or physically attacked her. The situation became so stressful that she would develop migraine headaches on Sunday night just thinking of going to work the next day. Her doctor recommended she take antidepressants if she wanted to continue at her job.

That doesn't surprise Namie. He's tracked bullying cases that have led to strokes, heart attacks, even suicide. He adds that 50 percent of bullies are women - and they target other women more than 80 percent of the time.

BAD FOR BUSINESS

While there is no simple answer for why bosses become tyrants, experts agree that the exponential growth of the economy during the mid-1990s, followed by today's corporate downsizing, has led to a culture where bullies flourish. And new-economy companies can be some of the worst culprits. During the flush days of the high-tech boom, talent was so hard to find that companies often promoted inexperienced managers who lacked the expertise and people skills necessary to be successful leaders. As layoffs and closures continue, many of those managers are becoming tougher in an attempt to prove their worth to the company.

"At a leaner, meaner organization, you tend to find more aggressive behavior," says Loraleigh Keashly, an associate professor of urban and labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.

While the average target stays with an abusive boss for about a year and a half, Keashly notes companies with bullying bosses have higher turnover rates and increased employee absences. Her studies have shown that companies with bullying bosses report greater sick leave and stress leave. She also says unchecked bullying leads other employees to develop a "duck and cover" mentality to avoid any work that could bring the attention of a bully.

~That kind of management leads to a culture of "stifled innovation," says Columbia's Hornstein.

"Companies may get productivity from those people who are terrified, but they don't get the kind of commitment and creativity that organizations want," he adds. A single bully can lead to reduced productivity - and sagging profits - for the entire company, Hornstein warns.

Victims of workplace abuse have few rights and often receive little help from their companies. Namie is helping to author legislation on the subject in California. He says current state laws against harassment are limited to such factors as gender or race. Because of a lack of legislation, human resources departments often treat bullying as just a personality conflict, leaving the victim to either put up with the behavior or quit.

Take Walker's company, for example. He says his appeals to the human resources department fell on deaf ears. While a spokesman at Walker's company wouldn't comment on his situation, he did say that bullying behavior is "unacceptable and unprofessional," adding that the industry "is very competitive, so everyone on a regular basis has high expectations."

But companies need to set clear guidelines between high expectations and unreasonable demands if they want to build a successful organization, notes Hornstein. "The effect that bullies have is not only on the individual victims; it's on the functioning of the entire system," he says. "These bosses are like a virus."

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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