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HR Handled Right

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For each harassment complaint you’ve investigated, odds are you’ve dealt with ten times as many equal opportunity jerks. The boss who constantly criticizes, demeans, and undermines his employees. The supervisor who takes delight overworking and exploiting subordinates, or the employee who taunts and intimidates his coworkers. In short, the workplace bully.

Hypersensitive or Held Hostage?

With the continued escalation in harassment complaints, the last thing H.R. professionals need is another behavior problem to deal with. And, given the stressful work environment these days, it’s easy to think that rudeness or incivility is an inevitable part of people working together; after all, who hasn’t been snapped at by a stressed-out boss or coworker?

Bullying, though, is not the occasional sharp retort or sarcastic putdown. Nor is it a misguided attempt to get things done through tough management. Bullying is an ongoing and systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It tends to be an accumulation of many incidences over a long period of time; on its own, a single incident would not necessarily constitute grounds for disciplinary action. Taken together, these instances add up to persistent, abusive behavior designed to make the target feel upset, humiliated and threatened.

For example, according to the U.S. Hostile Workforce Survey 2000, the most popular bullying tactics include:

  • blaming others for errors
  • raising false concerns about or criticizing the work of others
  • making unreasonable demands
  • yelling and screaming
  • threats of job loss, insult, or put-downs
  • inconsistent enforcement of arbitrary rules
  • social exclusion
  • stealing credit for another’s work

Studies vary as to who is most likely to be a bully – some studies say that both men and women are equally likely to misbehave while other studies indicate that 70 percent of all bullies are men. There is little controversy, however, that the bully is most likely to be the boss and that, male or female, the victim is most likely to be female. There’s also consistent evidence that workplace bullying is common – and that it hurts the bottom line. In fact, a recent study suggests that simply being a witness to workplace bullying is linked to sleep problems and increased stress.

The Psychology of Bullying Versus Harassment

Unlike illegal forms of harassment and discrimination, bullying isn’t directed at a person because of his or her religion, gender, age, race or other demographic variable. S/he isn’t interested in obtaining sexual favors or dominating a vulnerable group. In fact, the target of bullying is most likely to be selected because of her popularity and competence, which is perceived as a direct threat to the bully.

Unlike a sexual harasser’s need to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position, bullying is an effort to control a threat (and prevent exposure of inadequacy). Unlike the power motive behind harassment and discrimination, envy and jealousy are the primary drivers of bullying behavior. And, unlike the racial slurs or sexual comments found in illegal forms of harassment, workplace bullying tends to appear as petty criticism, the withholding of critical information, and/or false allegations of underperformance.

Another difference between generic bullying and harassment is the available legal remedies. U.S. laws aren’t set up to deal with an incompetent or cruel supervisor bullying a subordinate unless it is linked to a protected demographic or is so outrageous that it causes diagnosable emotional distress.

However, bullies may not completely escape the long arm of the law. In the United States, I see more and more stress-related workman’s comp claims and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuits because of workplace bullying. For example, two employees in Texas were awarded $250,000 in damages after a supervisor continually yelled at them, put his head down and “charged at them like a bull,” and made at least one employee wear a sign that said “I quit.”

Is There a Bully in your Midst?

Having conducted numerous morale investigations for employers, it never ceases to amaze me how one person’s dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization. Employers may not face the same legal consequences as they would for discriminatory behavior, but the lost productivity and turnover costs are enormous.

Because victims are often afraid to speak out about their experiences and witnesses reluctant to stick their heads out, it can be hard to know if a bully is poisoning your workplace. Here are three ways you can begin to assess how bully-tolerant your work environment currently is:

  1. Conduct an anonymous employee satisfaction survey, asking questions specifically about employee experiences of common bullying tactics.
  2. Conduct regular exit interviews and ask specifically about interpersonal problems that might have led to their resignation. It can be useful to follow up a few months after the employee has resigned; in my experience, they’re more likely to be candid after some time has elapsed.
  3. Keep track of turnover statistics by department, by manager, and by unit. If you spot an anomaly, consider hiring an outsider to conduct an independent morale investigation.

Of course, there’s only so much HR can do; bullies thrive where authority is weak. Until there’s a commitment from top management, a policy is only words on paper and an investigation is meaningless unless there’s some teeth behind it. Still, as an HR professional, you are in a uniquely powerful position to advocate for employees by showing the powers-that-be why – and how – bullying in the workplace impacts the bottom line.

There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times that, once again, has some dismal news about employee satisfaction. Apparently, it’s at an all-time low. Less you think it’s all about the economy, a survey of 5000 workers revealed that the major sources of dissatisfaction had to do with the job itself and, in particular, the immediate supervisor.

The annual performance review, in particular, came under fire as a major source of angst for employees. What was interesting about the critique is that most criticisms I’ve read about performance reviews had to do either with a) the substitution of a formal annual process at the expense of providing regular, ongoing feedback, or b) the structure of the form itself (for example, a forced rating system or vague rating descriptions that provided little useful direction to the employees being reviewed. This article, however, offers the argument that the annual review is less about the employee’s actual performance and more a reflection of how much the supervisor likes the employee (check out Paul in NYC’s ironic interpretation of his performance review ratings in the comments section).

This Job is Killing Me

Another disheartening focus of this article is the significant mental and physical health problems that arise when an employee works in a toxic environment – depression, high blood pressure, heart problems. Not surprisingly, the immediate supervisor had an enormous impact -good bosses served as a buffer against other workplace stressors while destructive leaders amplified other workplace pressures – on the stress level of employees.

While in theory employees have avenues for dealing with a bad boss (human resources, the boss’s boss), in reality, employees often fear retaliation for speaking out against an abusive supervisor. Unfortunately, this can tempt an employee to try to regain a sense of control indirectly, i.e., by attempting to covertly sabotage the boss (calling in sick when there’s an important deadline, turning in work late or doing a bad job on it). This, of course, ultimately hurts the employee.

So What’s the Solution?

I wish I knew. The most disturbing part of this article to me was the barrage of bitter, cynical comments that followed it. While I do work with plenty of companies who hold supervisors accountable for their relationships with their employees, I encounter many more who don’t.

In the meantime, if you’re an employee stuck in a toxic work environment, the onus is on you to take the best care of yourself you can. Find a mentor who can give you emotional support and brainstorm with you about how to handle your bad boss, keep updating your skills and marketability, exercise and eat right and, if things don’t get better, get the heck out of there when you have the chance.

It’s been a long week. Your mom, who’s been successfully battling breast cancer, was hospitalized with a chemo-related infection. Your fiscal quarter ends at the end of the month and you’re two deals away from making quota. And could those rumors of more layoffs be true? You’re barely keeping your head above water as it is.

Suddenly, in the middle of an important sales presentation, you can’t breathe. Sweat starts to roll down your back and your heart races. Everybody is staring. What in the hell is wrong with me? You suddenly flash on your Uncle Bob; didn’t he have a heart attack in his mid-forties? Oh, God, am I dying?

Signs and Symptoms of Panic

No. You’ve just had a panic attack, an episode of intense fear that is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, chest pains, difficulty breathing, and dizziness/lightheadedness. It’s far more intense than feeling “stressed out” or “worried.” In fact, for many panic attack sufferers, the sensations are so severe that the sufferer worries that s/he will either die or go crazy.

If you’ve ever been in a life-threatening situation, and can recall the terror you felt, you know what a panic attack feels like. These attacks, though, occur without warning and for no apparent reason.

Fear by Association

Even though they often initially have nothing to do with the situation the person is in, they can easily becomeassociated with whatever the person is doing or where the person is at the time they have the panic attack. In a way, it’s just like getting sick to your stomach after you’ve eaten something; it doesn’t matter whether or not the food had anything to do with your nausea. Odds are, for weeks, months or even years afterward, just the thought of that food can make you feel queasy. (A friend of mine off a car and got a nausea-inducing concussion after eating Kentucky Fried Chicken; thirty years later, she still can’t stand the smell of fried chicken).

So someone who has her first panic attack while driving starts to worry that she’ll have another one the next time she gets behind the wheel. This worry, of course, creates more stress, making it more likely that she will have another panic attack. Pretty soon, if this cycle continues, she can’t drive at all.

But – wait – now she unexpectedly has a panic attack in the grocery store. The cycle repeats itself and, if left untreated, can result in increased isolation and decreased functioning.

Stress, Panic and Work

According to legal secretary Nancy Topolski’s lawsuit, by 2009 she was providing full time support to four attorneys at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. The fourth, which had been added after a series of layoffs in early 2009, allegedly had a pattern of waiting until the last minute to give her projects, putting her under tremendous pressure and forcing her to rush to get the tasks completed. After requesting a lighter workload several times and informing her supervisor that her job responsibilities were causing her significant stress, she suffered a panic attack at work. After a second panic attack, she was terminated.

Remember that any stressful situation – work-related or not- can trigger a panic attack at the office. Most commonly, it’s a build up of lots of stressors over time that initially gets the panic attack ball rolling. Once it starts, though, it can take on a life of its own, adversely affecting the employee’s productivity as well as his or her morale.

What You Can Do

If panic attacks are left untreated it can affect the body, emotional aspect as well as the behavior of the sufferer. This can also lead to more serious problems like depression, substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) or physical ailments like ulcers or heart conditions.

  1. Don’t play doctor. If an employee’s symptoms last more than a few minutes, call 9-1-1 (especially if s/he complains of chest pains or has asthma). Better safe than sorry.
  2. If you know the employee has a diagnosis of panic disorder, reassure him or her that it will pass. Allow the person to go somewhere where s/he feels comfortable doing deep breathing or relaxation exercises.
  3. Understand where s/he is coming from. Most panic attack sufferers work really hard to keep their disorder secret because they’re afraid of what others might think. Remember; the person experiencing the panic attacks can’t will them away.
  4. Provide the employee with referrals or encourage him or her to make doctor’s appointments as needed.

The Bottom Line

John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common . . . the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. “ As HR professionals, we have the opportunity to lead one person at a time – and encourage our employees to confront – and conquer – the anxiety that holds them back from their peak performance.


Many of us have seen a manager yell at an employee or slam a door. We’ve witnessed an employee throw a temper tantrum after an idea was shot down or someone else had taken credit for his/her work. Just last night, I watched a customer at McDonald’s launch into a lengthy tirade just because the employee gave her barbecue sauce instead of ranch dressing.

Whether we’re overwhelmed by having too much to do and too few resources to do it with, or never learned the basics of emotional self-control, a short fuse at work doesn’t win anybody brownie points. In fact, if it happens often enough, it can be career suicide.

Why Anger Can be Addictive

This is not headlining news. Few short-fused employees would argue that their outbursts help them win friends and influence people. So why do they happen so often?

Because – in the short term – it feels good. Letting loose often gives us a short-lived “high;” it relieves stress and creates the momentary illusion that we’ve regained control. It’s this temporary release that many managers I coach have such a hard time letting go of. And, after a while, it becomes a habit

Then we hear the rationalizations. “That isn’t who I am.” (This is actually true; most people who blow up are calm and logical most of the time). “I didn’t mean to be mean.” And the BIG ONE: “I wouldn’t have to blow up if . . . John would get the job right the first time, Jessica wouldn’t interrupt me every time I open my mouth, I could get somebody to listen to me around here,” etc.

Here’s the Score: You Lose

Here’s what happens if we lose our temper at work, particularly if this happens on a regular basis. First of all, our reputation as a hothead takes on a life of its own. In fact, it only takes one dramatically disruptive behavior to quickly become a story that defines the norm.

Second, we lose credibility and respect. Sure, if we’re in a position of power, others might jump to do our bidding out of fear of being next in the line of fire. But here’s what they’re thinking:

“My manager has no self-control. He’s weak.”

“Heck, if he can’t even control himself, how can he manage others? What a loser!”

“I’d like to show her how it feels.”

Anger Management: Emergency Measures When Your Fuse is LitSo how do we interrupt the momentum once we’re already on the way to a meltdown? Just as our blood is about to boil over, we need very specific strategies that can bring us back from the brink.

Here are some tips for ways we can maintain our professionalism and handle emotions effectively:

1. Get your head on straight. When someone says something insulting, disagreeable or aimed at ticking you off, say nothing. Hold your tongue no matter how tempted. Under your breath, repeat after me: “It’s not personal; it’s just business.” If that doesn’t work, try this: Or, “I have a really good reason to be ticked off right now, but if I blow up, I’ll end up being the bad guy.”

3. Get out of there.
As soon as you feel yourself getting hot under the collar, remove yourself from the situation. Tell the other person you need to think through what the two of you are talking about before you respond. Fake a page or another call to extricate yourself from a non-productive telephone call so you can step outside to calm yourself. Whatever it takes; just give yourself time to cool down.2. Do something else. Stall for time by asking questions. Repeat what the other person just said to make sure you understand what was just said and give him/her a chance to clarify any misunderstanding. Take deep breaths and count to ten. Focusing on something else is a great way to derail the physical symptoms that build up steam.

The Bottom Line

Reigning in a short fuse is torture when you’re already feeling out of control, overwhelmed, misunderstood or frustrated. And, it’s true; exercising self-discipline under pressure doesn’t provide nearly the immediate release a good door slamming or ear chewing does. However, as American author Jim Rohn once said, “We must all suffer from one of two pains; the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”