There’s a growing appetite for justice, balance and basic human dignity in the workplace, evidenced by activism among employees and increased commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives among employers. And as those principles are pursued in courts, legislatures and break rooms, there’s less tolerance than ever for the low-level suffering and indignity inflicted daily by workplace bullies.
During the Great Resignation, we’ve seen workers of all ages and experience levels increasingly willing and able to leave behind toxic workplaces and managers.
Meanwhile, a few high-profile employers in sports, entertainment and other fields have rid themselves of employees whose behavior is ruining work for everyone else.
General abuse or intimidation that might have been excused in bygone days as “perfectionism” or “just part of the job” is increasingly being seen for what it is: needless, destructive and counterproductive.
When quitting isn’t an option, however, less drastic strategies may also be effective. Readers responding to a recent column on rude, condescending and aggressive colleagues and managers shared examples of how they and their employers handle them.
“The very rare times a coworker has attempted to bully me resulted in my looking them in the eye and stating slowly and directly, ‘That won’t work.’ This phrase is repeated until I have the opportunity to tell them what will work, which is to be treated with respect,” Washingtonpost.com user “Helgasdottir” stated in online comments.
Jessica Welton of Aiken, South Carolina, said in an email that she dealt with a boss who was a shouter by calling a time-out. “I would just say, ‘Let’s talk later,’ and leave.” Welton said her boss would either follow up later in a calmer tone, or drop the topic altogether. After two or three times, he got the hint and stopped yelling.
Some lucky workers can prevail against workplace jerks by letting their own good work speak for them. Susan Lautar of Baltimore said in an email that she never complained to HR or management about a boss who “gave me the most menial work, degraded me for small errors and blamed me for mistakes in our work products that weren’t my fault.”
But Lautar had an advantage from her years working at the company: good relationships and a reputation for competence. As a result, when her boss submitted a “horrible evaluation” for Lautar, upper management got rid of the boss and promoted Lautar into the position.
In some cases, speaking up the right way at the right time can alert well-intentioned colleagues or bosses when their behavior comes across as rude or overbearing. As a commissioned Air Force lieutenant recently out of college, Lisa Gossett of Manassas, Virginia, supervised personnel with lower rank, but greater age and experience.
One day, Gossett said, an experienced technical sergeant at least a decade her senior under her command asked her if he was doing anything to cause Gossett to lose faith in his performance. The sergeant pointed out that whenever a high-ranking squadron member approached him with an issue, Gossett would immediately step in to resolve it herself.
Meanwhile, Gossett thought she was shielding the sergeant from potential abuse by some of the nastier squadron members. “I hadn’t thought about the signals I was sending to [him] and the squadron by intervening,” Gossett said in an email.
She apologized, backed off and discovered that the sergeant was “extraordinarily talented” at handling even the nastiest clients: “By intervening, I had been keeping [him] from performing one of his strongest skill-sets.”
The key element to this success story is Gossett’s emotional intelligence and willingness to listen to her sergeant’s feedback. By focusing on the underlying issue of trust, rather than on Gossett’s behavior, the sergeant avoided triggering a defensive reaction.
But as other readers pointed out, not all nasty colleagues or overbearing bosses have good intentions behind their poor behavior, and no amount of second-guessing their motives or standing up to them will result in change. For narcissists and others who thrive on putting others down, nastiness is the whole point. And plenty of them manage to find employers that let them operate with impunity.
“Coping strategies are a waste of energy and time if you are the victim,” Robyn Prehn of Crofton, Maryland, said in an email describing her experience working for a bully at a public agency. “I was tortured for five years before I had a mental breakdown and could no longer get out of the car to go into the office.”
Prehn learned that people had been complaining about her boss for years, but management’s response was to shuffle the boss from office to office.
“I had been reporting the abuse to my supervisor for two years only to discover that he was afraid of the bully himself and neglected to take it further for fear of retaliation,” she said.
Since the antagonist will never change, something else has to in situations such as Prehn’s: Either the target has to change jobs, or there must be unanimous cooperation to create an environment where bullying confers no power. In many cases, the former may be the only option — but more of us are now demanding and pursuing the latter.