Corporate bullying 101

female-bully-3Rest assured that, the warm and fuzzy best workplace reviews by PR trades notwithstanding, every firm has some form of workplace bullying. It’s impossible to prevent.

In fact, as Don Spetner’s superb column in the most recent issue of PR Week details, corporate bullying is very much alive and well.

Spetner’s personal anecdotes are riveting, and date from the 1980s and ’90s. My two experiences with corporate bullying aren’t quite as captivating, but also occurred during the same time frame:

– The first involved a loud-mouthed CEO who dropped the F-bomb in each, and every, sentence.

One day, having found displeasure with a recent newsletter I’d written, he proceeded to positively eviscerate me in front of 25 or so peers, and ended by saying, “Cody, you should be embarrassed every f*cking day when you look in the mirror!” Nice, no?

Like Spetner, I chose to rise to the occasion. After reflecting about the incident over a depressingly long weekend, I bounced into work the following Monday morning full of piss and vinegar (BTW, why would one be full of the latter?).

I walked up to the CEO and said, “Thanks for the feedback. Tom. I intend to prove you wrong.” I proceeded to double down on the quality and quantity of my work and, sure enough, he promoted me in a few months. The public dressing down had been a test.

– The second bully was also a CEO. But, he worked in a devious, destructive manner and employed subtle, subversive but oh-so-deadly tactics.

He’d never confront me directly.

Instead, I’d receive a call at 5pm from an account manager named Kate asking me why Jim had just asked her to remove my name from the list of attendees at that night’s client dinner.

That kind of last-second maneuver was typical of this bully.

Absolutely incensed, I’d charge across the hallway only to be halted by his PA Lorraine, who would tell me Jim (whose door was always closed, BTW) was not to be disturbed.

I’d end up going home, tail tucked between my legs, beaten down and totally clueless as to a counter-strategy. Fifteen months later, there was a mutual parting of the ways, and Ed and I gave birth to Peppercomm.

Modern bullying is very real and, with the advent of e-mail, even more pervasive.

We do our best to identify it when it occurs and end it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

We don’t hold workshops about workplace bullying, but we should. And, BTW, corporate bullying is not limited to the top down, boss-to-employee models described above. I’ve witnessed some very effective bottom-up bullying as well.

So, if your organization doesn’t provide anti-bullying guidance, here are some tips:

– Speak directly to the bully, discuss whatever his or her issues are, and see if there are ways to diffuse the situation.
– If that fails, sit down with your human resources manager, explain the situation and ask for guidance/intervention.

Whatever you do, do NOT attempt to counter-punch the bully in public (and by that I mean online or face-to-face). While it worked on one occasion in Spetner’s anecdotes, it almost always guarantees a one-way ticket to Palookaville. And, the senior executive won’t be the one boarding the train. It’ll be you.

So, please, share your personal workplace bullying stories with me. I’m all ears.

12 thoughts on “Corporate bullying 101

  1. Peppercomm’s Matt Conroy knows of whence I speak. I was at an agency and things were going just swell. Then the CEO got it in his head that we were all taking advantage of him. He hired some hardball VP from the West Coast who called himself a self-professed B2B tech guru to crack heads. His imagination extended only to what was on his flow charts and who did or didn’t adhere to them. He proceeded to bully everyone on the team. Several good people quit.

    I didn’t. I wish I’d had the courage to either force change or risk kissing my generous salary, quick walk to work, leased company car, etc. goodbye. It wasn’t until it was done for me that I got humble, stopped putting up with bullies and now I’m a better person for it. Kickboxing helped too.

  2. Rough stuff, Peter. Sorry to hear it. The problem with most bullies is that they seeM to thrive in the workplace. And, I’m surprused there aren’t more stories about it. The PR trades seem especially adept at overlooking anything negative in their glowing daily, weekly and monthly reports of our field. Oh well, I need to go scream at an underpferfoming direct report. Later, Peter.

  3. I once worked for a boss who took pleasure in bully and subsequently, firing, every PR firm she ever hired. It was a revolving door. She also went out of her way to plant lies with each of her direct reports so that no one trusted anyone they worked with — except her. She expected everyone to report back to her any conversation (no matter how trivial). If she found out you had lunch with a co-worker, she wanted to know exactly what you discussed and why she wasn’t informed. She brought the phrases “hostile work environment” and “mean girls” to new levels.

    • Good question. She went on to hold other top corporate positions, where I am sure she continued her bullying cycle. Not sure where she is now.

  4. Thanks, Julie. That proves my point (and re-confirms Leo Durocher’s “Nice guys finish last” line). Bullies do very well in the workplace (warm and fuzzy best workplace stories notwithstanding.

    • Exactly. See “Chainsaw: The Raw, Unadulterated Al Dunlap Story.”

      There will always be plenty of boards and CEOs who continue thinking that someone who busts heads will be more effective than managers who encourage teamwork and share credit. What’s worse is that in some industries or circumstances, I’m not sure they’re always wrong. Would say, Goldman Sachs benefit from replacing Blankfein & Co. with a “nice guy” culture?

  5. I don’t agree, Peter. Aside from the military where I understand why a drill sergeant has to act like, well, a drill sergeant, I’ve always believed one catches more bees with honey. Call me an idealist if you like.

    • OK, you’re an idealist.

      Seriously, I agree that most work cultures benefit from a team-driven, positive approach from management. But I also work with a bunch of small companies and industries that aren’t really in the same realm of human capital.

      In some cases, success is achieved the old-fashioned way, i.e. yelling and screaming. Some of it is even non-US cultural. I don’t like it, it burns people out, and I could never be an employee in those conditions. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results when the people in charge believe that’s what works.

  6. Point made. Ed still occasionally screams and yells in the workplace and I do notice the pace quickens afterwards. Gets a lot quieter as well.

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