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Everywhere you turn these days there is a discussion about bullies.  Most of the attention is on younger people.  The notion that “it gets better” implies that by the time we are grown ups working in offices that either bullies have seen the error of their ways or we can now put them in their places.

Ah, I wish that was true.  Granted, adult professionals aren’t running around overtly giving undie-pulls.  They are more subtle and cunning about how they make sure that everyone knows who rules the playground.  When I was a therapist I told my clients, “An outrageously abusive person is much easier to deal with than a more covertly harmful one.  The more open behavior is the more likely it is to be seen by others and you are more likely to know for certain that it is wrong.  You can build up defenses to protect yourself.  With a person who is sometimes nurturing or wraps all the awful stuff in sweet words or shows one public face and then comes home and acts terribly towards you…you are always off balance.  This is much tougher to figure out how to cope with.”

Bullies in the work place are the clever type.  One person I used to work with exemplified what I’m talking about.  An Executive Vice President, very smart, productive track record but it was widely accepted that you never turned your back on him.  In one on one meetings he would rip you a new asshole, bordering on actionable offenses, but in public pretend that you were great.  If you made a claim that he had been hostile he would deny it.  This was believable to the other executives because he had always supported you in public.  The employee looked like an alarmist and the EVP shrugged his shoulders in disbelief that you would even think of accusing him of such an awful thing.

If you are on the receiving end of this treatment, what should you do?  Don’t let them win.  Take a page from what we are teaching our children these days.  Tell someone (HR), gather support from bystanders (others who have been hurt or overheard), find a senior person you can trust who can have your back.  Believe me, many people in the organization have the bully’s number so you will have company.  Being the victim, and usually in a lower status, you want the abusive behavior to stop and you want to have your job if you blow the whistle.  Find a really competent and fearless HR person who can quietly investigate the situation.  Chances are you are not the first person coming forward.

The process that unfolds is uncomfortable and worrisome but I urge you to proceed.  Otherwise that nasty person wins…which is their whole goal.  See, a bully is nothing more than an extremely insecure person who needs to use force to squash down any potential competitors.  And they suck at relationships.  Have limited patience.  They aren’t happy until you’re not happy…or better, gone.  It’s a twisted psychology and you need to pull the plug.  If you leave because you can’t take it anymore, they will just move on to their next victim.

I’m asked all the time, why do companies put up with these known assholes?  Trust me, I’ve talked with more CEOs about getting rid of these people than you can imagine.  They all give me the same answer, “This person is critical to our business.”  Bullshit.  While that person is reeking havoc the best people are leaving the company, the culture gets very mistrustful  and (by the way) at some point the business suffers.  My best line that finally got through to some CEOs was, “Your reputation is tanking as a result of you keeping this person here.  People can’t believe that you don’t see the destructive behavior so they assume it’s okay with you.  Ultimately, keeping this person is a blow to your leadership credibility.”

If we don’t take actions to say No to bullies they will keep bullying.  As long as they get away with it, they will.  Don’t let them.

And besides, the price you pay while coping with this situation is very high.  You are distracted, trying to jump through hoops to avoid more tirades, becoming less productive and generally stressed.  You’re better than this jerk and s/he doesn’t deserve all the attention and energy you are giving away.  Bullies bully because they can.  Next time someone starts to scream at you say, “I’m leaving now.  When you have calmed down we can talk about this.  But not now.” and then walk away.  Let the person know that you won’t play along.  It only takes a couple of these moments to make it clear that you won’t be mistreated.

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