Bully Bosses are Common but Hard to Fix

by Jul 21, 2012

The Hooters restaurant chain likes to play up its “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” slogan. But what more than 15 million TV viewers saw on Feb. 14 went beyond unrefined.

A Hooters franchise manager insisted that servers clasp their hands behind their backs and gobble up a serving of cooked beans face-first. Whoever cleaned her plate the quickest would get to leave early.

That scene was shown on the CBS reality show Undercover Boss. Later in the episode, Coby Brooks — the Hooters CEO who went undercover to evaluate workers — reprimands the manager for being inappropriate.

“There are lines that you don’t cross,” Brooks said.

Yet, many bosses don’t follow that stance. In offices nationwide, managers belittle, isolate, intimidate and sabotage employees.

One in three adults has experienced workplace bullying, according to surveys conducted earlier this year by research firm Zogby International for the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Nearly three-fourths of bullying is from the top down, according to a 2007 study.

Some tyrannical managers scream and send out scathing e-mails. But often, an oppressor uses a more subtle — and easily covered — collection of behaviors. These actions could include purposely leaving a worker out of communications so they can’t do their job well, mocking someone during meetings and spreading malicious gossip about their target, says Catherine Mattice, a workplace consultant who specializes in this issue.

The acts may seem trivial, but as they build up over time, the ramifications can be monumental.

Bullied workers often feel anxious and depressed, can’t sleep and are at increased risk for ailments such as hypertension. Some employees feel so overwhelmed, they just can’t see a way out. “Sometimes, unfortunately, suicide is the result,” Mattice says.

Tough to diagnose

On an academic level, workplace bullying has become a popular research topic, says Stanford Engineering School management professor and Good Boss, Bad Boss author Robert Sutton. But on a broader scale, there is still much to be learned about this topic.

“Workplace bullying is kind of this new concept; it’s like sexual harassment before Anita Hill,” Mattice says. “One of the biggest problems is that it is under the radar.”

A big issue is that bullying is difficult to define. Is a demanding boss a bully or a perfectionist? Is a manager who says inappropriate things malicious or just tactless? “That’s one of the difficult things to grapple with,” says Joseph O’Keefe, a senior counsel at law firm Proskauer. “When does it rise above just being a mean boss and reach the level of bullying?”

As a general guideline, bullying occurs when a manager has an ongoing pattern of intimidating or demeaning behavior that can affect an employee’s health.

“We’ve all had bosses who are rough around the edges, and sometimes you just have to deal with it,” says Tom Davenport, a senior consultant at human resources consultancy Towers Watson. “But it’s one thing to have an assertive boss, and it’s another to have one that makes you feel sick — psychologically, physically and emotionally sick.”

Since bullying is such an amorphous act, department managers and human resource executives often have to examine claims of it on an individual basis. Officials at the University of Virginia had to undertake this task earlier this year.

On July 30, Kevin Morrissey, managing editor at the University of Virginia literary magazine Virginia Quarterly Review, shot himself. Morrissey’s sister, Maria Morrissey, says that after his death, she learned that her brother was treated harshly by VQR editor Ted Genoways.

Genoways’ attorney, Lloyd Snook, says the editor was not a bully to Morrissey or anyone else in the office.

Following Morrissey’s death, the university commissioned an audit of the magazine’s finances and management practices. The Oct. 20 report says that while Genoways’ ability to supervise his staff in accordance with university policies “is questionable,” complaints against him didn’t raise any red flags.

“There were reports through the years of the editor not being courteous or respectful with some contributors and colleagues, as well as problems with certain employees, but none ever seemed to rise to the level of a serious, ongoing concern,” the report said.

In a formal response to the audit, Snook said that Genoways “has never been told of any specific complaint that any of his staff has had. There was never any personnel action taken against Ted.”

Even with the release of the internal report, there are still many questions swirling — and not many publically known answers — about the situation at VQR.

Failing to take action

Yet, even when there are obvious concerns about a boss poisoning an office environment, often little is done. Reasons this is tough to diagnose and cure:

•Victims keep quiet. Many workers are embarrassed at being bullied, so they don’t report the persecution to human resources. In addition, many targets are afraid that if they complain, there will be retribution.

•Intervention can take time. Morrissey and other staffers complained to UVA officials about workplace strife. Mediation was to take place, says UVA spokeswoman Carol Woods, but Kevin’s sister, Maria, says the school didn’t have a thorough or timely response. The UVA audit says its personnel satisfied “institutional policies and procedures.” While there were notices of problems at VQR, the report says there were “no specific allegations of bullying or harassment prior to July 30th.”

•Discipline can be subjective. Even though Undercover Boss is an entertainment-focused reality show, blogs were filled with intense criticism for Hooters CEO Brooks after he didn’t fire the manager who made the waitresses eat without their hands.

That manager resigned earlier this year “to pursue other interests,” says Hooters spokeswoman Alexis Aleshire. She said the company couldn’t comment further on that specific situation, but e-mailed this statement: “Hooters has a longstanding and highly effective policy protecting employees from all harassment. Hooters of America and (the) Texas Wings (franchise) are confident the incident portrayed on Undercover Boss is in no way representative of conduct within the Hooters system.”

•Legal recourse isn’t clear-cut. Existing federal laws focus on the harassment/discrimination of those in a protected class, such as race, religion, national origin, age or disability. Since 2003, 18 states have proposed a “healthy workplace bill” that holds an employer accountable for an abusive environment, but none has become law.

•Witnesses are scared to come forward. About one in seven workers said they’ve seen workplace bullying but haven’t been a target themselves, the WBI says. But many observers keep quiet. “A lot of time, bystanders see bullying, but they won’t stand up,” Mattice says. “They don’t want to attract attention.”

•Savvy bosses work the system. Manipulative managers often know how to play the game so they’re not caught. “They kiss up and kick down,” Sutton says.

Who gets picked on by whom

Workplace bullying can take many forms. While it’s often a boss targeting employees, workers have picked on peers — and even their supervisors.

Slightly more than 60% of bullies are men, and 58% of targets are women, according to WBI. When a woman is the aggressor, she often picks on her own gender: Women target other women in 80% of cases. Men are more apt to target men.

Bullying can take place in any work environment, but Mattice says it tends to be more prevalent in hierarchical industries such as manufacturing, health care and education.
Crummy bosses are frequently more tolerated in organizations that focus on reaching sales goals, Davenport says.

“In a results-driven environment, managers may say ‘Tom really is a jerk, but he certainly produces the numbers,’ ” he says.

Further complicating things: Most bullies don’t realize — or at least, admit — that they’re the bad guy. Fewer than 1% of people say they bully others at work, according to the WBI.

“We, as human beings, have self-awareness issues,” Sutton says.

While maniacal managers may not realize how their behavior affects other employees, one place where they could see the difference is in the bottom line. Bullied employees will often take more sick days, steal supplies and use work hours to look for other jobs.

“They’ll take longer breaks, and they’ll be less likely to help others,” Sutton says.

Beaten-down employees also don’t perform as well on duties that take mental wherewithal. Research subjects have been less creative in simple puzzle-solving tasks after someone has been nasty to them, Sutton says.

But even as studies show that abusive managers can harm profits, bullying continues to rise at some firms.
One issue: Productivity-producing carrots, such as raises and bonuses, have been taken away as companies cut costs. Many mangers have turned to using sticks.

“With the economy the way it is, (supervisors) are more stressed out, and they are more likely to become more aggressive at work,” Mattice says.

Those on the receiving end have their own issues due to the economic maelstrom.

“Anyone who is being bullied feels trapped, because where are they going to go?” she says. “They feel stuck there until the economy gets better.”

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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