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Patty Kleban: The Workplace Bully

by on September 17, 2012 6:37 AM

I’ve heard about the workplace bully but haven’t had to actually deal with one until this past week. Unfortunately, one of my students on internship was provided with a “learning opportunity” when faced with a supervisor who practices management by bullying.

What is a workplace bully?

Bullying in the work place has been defined as aggressive communication or behaviors in a job setting that serve to humiliate, degrade or sabotage the work of others. The Workplace Bullying Institute has identified on-the-job bullying to include verbal abuse, threats and work interference.

Work interference can includethings like assigning unrealistic deadlines and expectations; physical or social isolation from others and from opportunities; ignoring or taking credit for another employee’s work; and intentionally setting up an employee to fail or refusing to acknowledge positive performance.

Threats to personal or professional standing through actions such as degrading or demeaning a person in public or in writing, humiliation, sarcasm, spreading rumors etc. are the most overt examples workplace bullying.

The workplace bully looks and sounds a lot like the bully on the playground. The patterns and results are strikingly similar to domestic violence.

According to research, as many as 49 percent of workers have either been victim to or have witnessed bullying behaviors in the workplace. Statistically, victims of workplace bullying are more likely to be women (particularly if the bully is another woman) and minorities. Workplace bullying, like domestic violence and sexual harassment, is often not reported because of the fear of loss of status, retribution or embarrassment, particularly for men.

Bullying is thought to be more common in professions, like medicine and academia, where there is a progression of steps to enter the field. Additionally, workplace cultures where there is competition, intense project deadlines or a disparity in gender (e.g. construction or nursing), are more conducive to bullying.

The psychological profile of individuals who bully in the workplace suggest the bully is egocentric, usually has problems with social skills and relationships, has feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, narcissistic tendencies, and has a lack of empathy for others.

The cost in productivity, lost work time, in turnover and in employee health concerns makes workplace bullying a serious problem.

The power imbalance between a supervisor and an employee – or a supervisor and intern - can set the stage for workplace bullying.

Most fields of work include an internship or practicum in the preparation and training of the professional. The purpose is to have the apprentice learn about the job and apply the theoretical or classroom materials to the practice of the field while being supervised by someone already in the field. Since most of us have been there, we understand that the internship provides the opportunity to learn and we don’t expect our apprentices to be perfect.

For many interns, it is their first time out in a professional setting. I have watched interns learn about their profession but also learn how to conduct themselves in the workplace, how to manage their time, how to become a member of a work team and how to work in the hierarchy of organizational culture. Some learn more quickly than others.

This past week, the situation with an intern turned bad quickly. Our student had car trouble, was late to work, missed an important deadline and was not effective in communicating the situation as it was happening. Was it reason for termination? Perhaps but given the fact that she is an intern and it was her first incident, it could be argued that it was a “teachable moment.”

Instead, the person above her supervisor (the owner of the company) began a campaign intended to demean and degrade. He basically demoted her, took away her pay, and put her on “sudden death” status – and threatened her if she told anyone about their written or verbal conversations. The email threads and her notes from the phone conversations were shocking.

Thankfully, she turned to her faculty supervisors for guidance. In collecting information, we learned from other employees that this behavior was routine and “he does that to all of us.” Hearing adults express intimidation and fear of reprisal made it clear that we were dealing with a workplace bully.

When I communicated our decision to pull her and place her in a new internship, he turned his wrath on me. He insulted my person, my ability to supervise, questioned my motives, and, yes, even made a reference to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

As is typical with people who view the world through anger and impotence, he seemed to become more enraged as I refused to take the bait. I can’t imagine how it must feel to work for this guy, day to day.

In the end, the questionable decisions made by the student paled in comparison to the unprofessional behaviors of the workplace bully.

We were able to make a change for the student and hopefully get her back on track in her professional development. Unfortunately, tough economic times, a shaky job market and a lack of awareness about workplace bullying likely means that other employees, at this company and at many others, are forced to remain in a setting where their safety and security are compromised. Unacceptable.

Nobody likes a bully.

Recent Columns:

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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