In college, I worked as a waitress at a popular Italian restaurant in Boston. The owners were reputed mobsters and did nothing to discredit the rumor. Basically, they treated us like dogs and told us not to complain about it because we were making big tips.
The tips were indeed good, so I hung in there–until one night. When a customer asked for a special order, I meekly relayed the request to the owner-chef in the kitchen. His response was to throw a knife that barely missed my head. I walked out for good. To this day, I remember my feelings of fear for weeks after leaving that job.
Are You Being Bullied?
My boss was definitely a meanie, but what about your boss? Does he or she make snide comments about your work or purposely humiliate you during meetings? If so, you may be working for a classic bully, according to Dr. Gary Namie, co-author of The Bully at Work.
Difficultare consistent. A bully boss will always behave irrationally.
“You’re working for a bully if you are getting sick and throwing up on Sunday nights,” explains Dr. Namie. He also notes two other trouble signs: Your co-workers abandon or distance themselves from you (lest they be the next targets) and your family no longer wants to hear about your work.
How do you know the difference between a bully boss and one who is plain old difficult? “You don’t get post-traumatic stress syndrome from a difficult boss,” says Namie. “Difficult bosses aren’t arbitrary and capricious; they are more consistent and fair. A bully boss wants absolute control of you and will behave totally irrationally.”
Epidemic, or Cry-Baby Syndrome?
Namie’s organization, the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying, recently reported that bullying affects one in six American workers–and 81 percent of the bullies are bosses. Their research found that women and men bully others equally, but women are the targets of bullies an overwhelming 84 percent of the time.
What should you do if you are being bullied at work? Don’t look to human resources for help, says Dr. Namie. “Their role dictates that they support management and help defend the bully,” he explains. “In too many cases, bullying is labeled a personality problem or the person who complains about being bullied is tagged a loose cannon.”
But according to Kate Wendleton, president of career counseling service The 5 O’Clock Club, and author of numerous books on career strategies, the person complaining may very well be the problem. “Up until recently, the balance of power had been with labor, and it was a good time to be an employee,” says Wendleton. “However, recent events have contributed much turbulence to the labor market. Virtually every company is re-assessing its business. People in general are stressed these days, including bosses, who may be more overbearing than usual.”
Even so, Wendleton says a labor shortage is projected for the next ten years, though it may not be across the board. Certain industries have suffered enormous job losses (airlines, restaurants) while others are desperate to hire (finance, security).
Put Up Your Dukes
Dr. Namie says that if you are being bullied and aren’t in a position to quit your job, you can take three key steps.
- Name the problem. This externalizes the source–it’s not you.
- Bully-proof yourself. Get counseling from an independent source, not a company shrink.
- Mount the fight. Make your case to a neutral, high-level executive–not Human Resources).
If the person with whom you speak refuses to take action, you must resolve to leave your job at some point, says Dr. Namie. Otherwise, the bullying will continue and so will the adverse side effects.
Are Those Wings Under Your Suit?
Lastly, remember that there are angels out there, too. My last full-time boss doled out chocolate brownies when he noticed I was having a bad day and actually apologized if he yelled. He also urged me to move on from doing his research and reporting to doing my own.
And he never threw a knife–not even once.