As I See It: Attila in the Workplace
by Victor Rozek
I have a friend who works for a local enterprise that owns and manages numerous commercial and residential properties as well as vast tracts of forestland. The company likes to keep a low profile. You won't find it listed in the phone book, and unless you happen to know where they are, the offices are hard to find. They're holed up in the back of a nondescript building, and only a small, discrete sign attests to what lies within.
I used to wonder why the need for anonymity. Security, of course, makes a convenient catch-all for paranoid excesses. And I suppose it makes some sense if you're worried about disgruntled tenants storming the barricades or protestors objecting to the leveling of a thousand acres of old growth forest. But as my friend shared some of her appalling work experiences, I began to believe that the need for concealment reflected an unconscious desire to keep hidden the culture and behaviors of a dysfunctional company.
Basically, it's a company run by bullies, and like most bullies they have a need for control and dominance, which they exert on those whom they perceive to be the most helpless and least likely to fight back. In this case, the preferred targets are women (although men are as frequently targeted as well), and the bullying takes the form of public blaming, unreasonable demands, undue criticism, raging, frequent yelling, and profuse swearing. And because men are generally larger and more aggressive than women, the victims also suffer the demeaning experience of being physically intimidated.
Bullying in the workplace is on the increase. Studies show that one person in five reports having been bullied or intimidated. If the sampling is an accurate extrapolation of national trends, bullying has become more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination.
The "whys" of bullying are varied and speculative. Given the abundance of political and economic uncertainty, perhaps too many people feel chronically stressed or are persistently stretched too thin. Perhaps many are frightened and unconsciously believe that displays of aggression can alleviate or manage their fears. Alcohol or substance abuse may play a part. Or perhaps bullying is simply a classic compensation for feelings of inferiority and a lack of control.
Whatever the motivation, we do know that the behaviors are learned early in life and are often a result of poor or neglectful parenting in homes where violence and rage are the final arbiters in domestic disputes. We do know that bullying is so prevalent in schools that 160,000 children miss school each day in order to avoid the fear and humiliation of being tyrannized. We do know that children learn these behaviors as a survival strategy early on, and like many unpleasant behaviors, they resurface later in life under conditions of stress.
The prices paid by employers and employees alike for unchecked intimidation are sobering, although they are difficult to quantify because so much of the impact occurs over time and may never be directly linked to the causal events.
Let's start with turnover. An enlightening survey conducted by Christine Pearson, a management professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flager Business School, has assessed the cost of workplace incivility. It is important to note that Pearson's study didn't even touch on the more explicit manifestations of physical intimidation, but just on garden-variety disrespect, humiliation, and browbeating. To put it another way: These behaviors belong to people who were described by Hannibal Lecter in a culinary context as the "free range rude."
According to Pearson, 12 percent of the workforce turns over because of an inability to tolerate the boorish behavior of coworkers. That statistic would confirm my friend's experience. While the men in her office who are not targets of bullying comprise what she calls "a permanent core of employees," over the last ten years women suffered constant turnover. Few were adaptable or docile enough to endure the continual badgering. Nor should anyone be. Pearson further reports that 22 percent of employees decrease their effort at work, and another 10 percent decrease the amount of time they spend at work. Over a third of the respondents reported that working in such an environment caused their commitment and loyalty to the organization to decline.
Clearly, the monetary cost of bullying and disrespectful behaviors can be measured in billions. The state of California believes the problem is serious enough to entertain the nation's first legislation on anti-bullying in the workplace. AB1582 will be debated later this fall.
But there is also a major health component to the problem. Victims may suffer from anxiety, depression, diminished self-esteem, suppressed anger, elevated blood pressure, headaches, chronic exhaustion, and loss of sleep. Experts estimate that nearly one third of all stress-related illnesses are caused by repeated exposure to inappropriate workplace behaviors. The most extreme consequences occur when the suppressed anger can no longer be contained and erupts into violence. It is telling that the tragedy of the maltreated employee who returns to work with a gun and dispatches his supervisor or randomly kills several of his fellow employees has been reenacted so many times that it has become a cultural cliche. Just another crazy "going postal."
The proliferation of information technology offers workplace offenders a powerful, intimate, and sometimes anonymous means of intimidation. Venomous e-mails and even messages that threaten death or physical violence, sexual violation, or racial persecution are more common than companies care to admit, and may be received in the office or the home. Fax and mobile text messaging also have been reported as sources of harassment. In some cases, the Internet has been the persecutor's tool of choice. Disgruntled workers who prefer to avoid direct confrontation post uncomplimentary material about their company, their management, and their coworkers on Internet sites and in chat rooms.
It's not unexpected that the misuse of Internet technology would creep into the workplace. Digital bullying has been epidemic in schools for years, and educational institutions have been fighting some of its more egregious manifestations. Several years ago in Manhattan, students voted on which of the 150 students named on a Web site was the biggest "ho." In Chappaqua, New York, two enterprising high school seniors published highly personal information about 40 girls, including their addresses and phone numbers, details of their family life, and their sexual history. An Ohio high school student published the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of all the teachers in his school, with links to maps showing how to find their homes.
Some rightfully argue that unpopular expression is protected under the First Amendment. But while such behavior would not be tolerated in the workplace--especially if company computers were being misused--there is less legal clarity about what can legitimately be posted on one's home computer.
One of the early precedent-setting cases occurred several years ago when Justin Swidler was soliciting money over the Internet to pay for an assassin to kill one of his teachers. He was an eighth-grader at the time. The police were notified and refused to act. When his teacher took offense and sued, his parents defended his actions as being perhaps mischievous (boys will be boys) but nonetheless constitutional. Little Justin lost, and his parents were forced to fork over $200,000.
At precisely the same time Swidler was posting reasons why his algebra teacher should die, another young man named Eric Harris was putting the finishing touches on his own Web creation. The content of Harris' site was filled with explicit expressions of hatred and threats of violence that were so disturbing that a neighbor forwarded copies to the police. But in this case as well, the police declined to act. The families of 13 people would have a lifetime to regret their inaction. Eric Harris lived in Colorado and attended Columbine High School.
The message in all of this is that intimidation, whether verbal or digital, is sometimes a precursor to violence. It should never be taken lightly and should be immediately reported. The dilemma for targets is that in a very high percentage of cases, the persecutor will outrank them and may have the power to terminate their employment at will. If management is doing the bullying, contact human resources and an attorney. A single well-drafted letter from an attorney can have a profound effect on the attitude of an abusive manager and can decrease the probability of retaliation. Sadly, though, about half of the people who experience bullying lose their jobs; they either leave to escape the abuse or are fired.
Then there are the people who apparently like being abused and even thrive on it. Take the case of Thomas Charlton, CEO of Tidal Software. Charlton is a former boxer who evidently decided that even though he was all grown up now and wearing a suit, that was no reason to leave his pugnaciousness in the ring. To say he is combative would be--from Charlton's perspective--to damn him with faint praise.
An article by Susan Hansen in Inc. magazine describes his management style as "no mincing of words, no coddling of employees. Zero tolerance of anything less than all-out effort." Charlton's idea of all-out effort apparently included mandatory 12-14 hour days, working two nights a week, and often weekends. It also included direct confrontation, 6:00 a.m. conference calls, taking an employee's door off the hinges because Charlton didn't like it shut, and prying another employee's file cabinet open with a hammer to get at some records.
Charlton, according to Hansen, still brags about the fact that his father urged him to return to a high school football game with a "severely broken hand." Sounds to me as if he's trying to replicate that scene with each of his employees. But bullying and intimidation are no more a guarantee of business success than they are of relationship success. They work temporarily, as long as the bully holds the one-up position and targets are willing to be bullied. The fact that some of Charlton's employees respond to his management style is probably more revealing of their mental makeup than the efficacy of Charlton's methods.
Bullying is a form of psychological violence. It is designed to devastate a target's emotional stability. Without diminishing the responsibility of the perpetrator, the reality is that by our reactions we train people to treat us the way they do. If we give them no reason to stop abusive behaviors, they won't.
Eric Hoffer wrote, "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength." Perhaps the best way we can assist people to be truly strong is by categorically rebuffing their rudeness.
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