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Jerks, backstabbers and bullies at workApril 26, 2012 @ 2:21 am (Updated: 10:15 am - 4/26/12 )
Look around the office. Do you know someone who berates and belittles co-workers? Maybe it's the boss who interrogates and intimidates employees?
Business research from Zogby finds about 35 percent of adults have been, or are currently, bullied at work. It's a problem that's gotten worse because of the tight job market where people are reluctant to complain or leave their jobs.
Ruth Namie, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, knows what it's like to work for "the boss from hell."
Her first two weeks at a local psychiatry clinic were fine, but then her female boss became more critical of Ruth's work as a mental health therapist.
"She picked on me. She criticized every little thing I did. She said 'I don't like what you're doing. I don't like the way you sit. I don't like what you say in group,'" Namie recalls. "Really picky, picky things."
We've all worked for demanding people at times. Ruth tried to shrug it off. It got worse for her.
"In staff meetings she'd point out mistakes that I made, trying to humiliate me. She would go to the reception area and make sure the clients heard her chastising me," Namie says, as she talked about the digs and jabs that became deeper and more frequent.
At that point, Ruth wondered, is it me? She had exceptional reviews in her previous jobs.
She went to every person in the clinic - made up of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers - and asked them for help with "Sheila." What could she do to please the boss? They told her "this has happened before" with the boss, and took a "better you than me" attitude.
Co-workers didn't want to have lunch with Ruth or be seen talking with her. They feared the boss would target them too if they were socializing with her.
"I was totally isolated. Totally isolated," she says.
Ruth felt alone at home too because for many months she didn't tell her husband what was going on at work. When she did, Gary Namie was determined to solve the problem for his wife.
"I dusted off the cape and put on the tights and was going to save her," he says. "We were clearly going to have the solution. We'd both been corporate training directors. We tried this. We tried that. All it did was frustrate Ruth and I felt terribly frustrated that I couldn't help my wife. She fell apart relatively quickly after that."
Ruth finally stood up to her boss, telling her "You're not going to talk to me like that ever again" as she slammed the door. The boss put Ruth on administrative leave. She never went back to that job.
That five-month experience was 15 years ago. It was the beginning of the Namies' new calling to start the first center of its kind in the country dealing with adult bullying - the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham.
The word "bully" gets tossed around a lot.
"We're not talking about an arching of an eyebrow or an occasional raised voice," he says. "It's mistreatment that's repeated, it's systemic and it takes the form of verbal abuse, intimidation, humiliation, threats or sabotage. That's serious undermining of a person's job, health and career."
Who are these bullies? If they're not the boss, they're often the people who are closest to the boss. Work bullies are controlling, self-centered, narcissistic and easily threatened, but otherwise they're "normal people."
A highly skilled bully usually has the dedication, focus and business acumen to create success, or at least the appearance of success. Bullies thrive in competitive environments that pit one employee against another, which is common with some technology companies. Health care and higher education - colleges and universities - are also industries that have a lot of workplace bullies, according to the Namies.
How should you deal with "jerks, weasels and snakes," as the Namies call them?
Confronting the bully can make it worse for the individual. Telling the boss often doesn't work because he or she might consider the victim to be the problem, especially if the company has a greater investment in the bully than in the person complaining. Human resources might be able to help if employee documents the workplace intimidation and can show how the bully is causing financial harm to the business.
Based on their experience, the Namies say HR departments are more likely to sweep the problem under the rug.
"Enough of sending these clowns off to anger management classes, and sending them off to training that they'll ignore," Gary says. "They need a comeuppance. They need to be sat down and told 'You're not the only one in this world you narcissistic fool,' but no one is going to do it at the company."
The Namies are working on legislation to make workplace bullying illegal, just as sexual harassment is against the law. So far 21 states, including Washington, have drafted bills related to workplace bullying. No laws have been enacted yet.
Five tips if you are a bully's target at work from licensed mental health therapist Jessi Brown.
1. Don't get emotional. Bullies take pleasure in emotionally manipulating people. Stay calm and rational to diffuse the situation.
2. Don't blame yourself. Don't lose your confidence.
3. Do your best work. The bully's behavior will seem more justified if you aren't performing well on the job.
4. Build a support network. Instead of allowing the bully to make you retreat into your office, work on building your relationships with your coworkers.
5. Document everything. Write, on your own computer at home, what happened, when it happened and who witnessed it.
By LINDA THOMAS
There have been many Hollywood dramas and comedies about bad bosses. Jason Bateman and Kevin Spacey were in a Warner Bros. movie last year called "Horrible Bosses." 20th Century Fox's The Devil Wears Prada, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway.
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