Workplace challenges.

January 29, 2015

When I was a kid in the 80’s, cyber bullies did not exist, and I never encountered much bullying on the schoolyard. I never expected to encounter a bully as an adult in my professional life, at an academic institution, by a woman. I was completely unprepared for it.  

Harvard Business Review has several posts on the subject of bullies in the workplace. In How to Stop “Mean Girls” in the Workplace, Cheryl Dolan discusses the rise of woman-on-woman bullying.  In another post, she offers advice on How to Confront an Office Bully. Nathaniel Fast gives us advice on how to Create a Bully-Free Workplace. Since reading some of these articles, I began to understand that my experience was not that uncommon.

After having a successful track record at an institution for several years, I was assigned a new boss, a female boss.  It was someone that I had worked with before, and had had a rocky relationship with, but I put the past aside and hoped to have a good relationship with my new supervisor.   I figured that our past differences were because we were in a competitive environment; because I was told to report to her, she had clearly “won.”

I tried to bond with her. We were both young women in leadership positions in a male-dominated department. We had similar academic interests, shared some personal interests, and we even faced some of the same challenges in our personal lives. I invited her out for coffee, and dropped by her office in the mornings to say hello.

But it didn’t work. This woman tried to take me down. She criticized everything that I did. She said I was too calm. She didn’t like where in the room I sat during meetings. She actively worked to humiliate me and to demean me in front of my coworkers. Once she conducted a survey about program quality with all of the students in my program without ever mentioning it to me or my staff. (The results were fine.)  She badmouthed me to colleagues across campus, damaging a reputation that I had taken years to build.

Out of the blue, she requested that I take a two week vacation to think about if I really wanted to work there, and surprised me with a typed out list of behaviors that I needed to improve upon to be more “dean like” according to her definition. None of these qualities had anything to do with being in a leadership position. When I came back from my “vacation”, she had assigned me a new role, “Special Projects” and had taken away all of my support staff.  She wanted to meet me every Monday morning at 8:00 am to “check in” on my progress, but rarely had the respect to show up on time, if at all,  for these meetings that I made a special effort to arrive early for on a Monday morning, and had dreaded all weekend.

Every time I would speak up in a meeting, she would find a way to shoot me down.  She accused me of starting a war in the office, and forbid me from being friends with my co-workers (It wasn’t dean like).  Particularly chilling was the time she told me that she lay awake at night, plotting against me.   I had made an effort to please this boss. I worried that maybe I was doing a bad job, and that maybe she was right.  I doubted myself.  No matter what I did, the situation got worse and worse.  At home I was anxious and obsessively checking my email, waiting for the next nasty email from her.  I couldn’t sleep.  I felt sick every morning before work.  I gained weight, and became depressed.  I felt completely disempowered and humiliated.

The one thing that made me feel better was the support from my coworkers, who eventually began to tell stories of how they too felt bullied and harassed by this same woman.  Because she had forbidden us from being friends, we were all afraid to talk about it. I heard stories of employees crying in each other’s offices, condescending emails, humiliating and unprofessional public chastising, and general frustration about mismanagement. If any of us showed compassion for another publicly, we knew that we would be next in line to take the abuse.

Interestingly, my male coworkers did not report feeling bullied. They were frustrated by what they labeled as incompetence. It was only the females that felt bullied.

Even more frustrating was that there was nowhere for any of us to go for help. Our unit was profitable and so on the surface, everything looked great. Whenever anyone complained, we were told to be patient, that she was new to the position, and was developing her talent and we needed to be more sensitive, or we were seen simply as disgruntled employees who weren’t to be taken seriously. One employee followed the traditional channels of complaint: talking to the department head and talking with Human Resources. Still unsatisfied, this employee talked with the dean of the college. That same afternoon, she was informed that there was a complaint against her that she was speaking unprofessionally about a department head.

One by one, we began to leave, taking jobs that were considered a step down, or even quitting with no next job to go to. We made choices that affected our families, our salaries, and our reputations. Every time someone left, it was another reminder of the impact that one bad apple could have on an otherwise happy, talented bunch. In my last several months there, I worked with a  career/leadership coach/counselor who told me that I was in an abusive relationship, and that it would take me three to six months to recover from the post traumatic stress of the experience – she was right.

I can see now that I was not as bad of an employee as she made me feel. In fact, I am good at what I do. Perhaps I posed a threat to her authority. Now that there is distance between me and that situation, I am more comfortable talking about it. I have discovered that workplace bullying is not uncommon.  Many people have experienced an abusive boss. It is a hard thing to talk about, because our professional reputations are on the line.  We don’t want to look weak or like whiners, or worse, deserving of the bad reputation. If we complain too loudly, we risk losing our jobs.

According to the 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, key findings were:

  • 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand
  • 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women
  • Women bullies target women in 80% of cases
  • Bullying is 4X more prevalent than illegal harassment (2007)
  • The majority (68%) of bullying is same-gender harassment

Unfortunately, my experience is not that uncommon.  The effects of bullying reach beyond the individual who is being bullied.  

Bullying is a silent epidemic that is completely unacceptable.  Just as we have rules and training on sexual harassment and discrimination, we should also have policies and procedures in place to prevent bullying at work.  The cost of bullying to me personally and to the organization, in terms of employee turnover, productivity, and general wellness was huge.  It has devastating effects on both employers and employees, and is a form of violence in the workplace.

In an academic institution, there are several things leaders can do to create a  bully-free environment:

  • Hire managers with strong interpersonal skills and leadership experience
  • Provide training to all new managers
  • Develop a workplace bullying policy, and remind managers about the psychological effects of bullying.  Hold managers accountable for their behavior.
  • Develop core values including trust and respect that guide managers on decision making and setting an office tone.

If you are the victim of a bully, here are some things that helped me:

  • Develop a support network.  I talked to colleagues and a career coach about my situation, and was comforted to know that I was not alone.
  • Document the bullying.  If you can give specific examples, rather than talking about feelings, you will be taken more seriously.
  • Remember: You are a good, valuable employee.  
  • Consider your options. I felt that my situation was not going to change. I made the choice to leave the institution.

Have you experienced bullying at your institution? Do you have any recommendations?



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