Workplace Bullying? Ask Madeleine

Workplace BullyingDear Madeleine,

I am an attorney with a state government agency. I run a team consisting of a few other attorneys and paralegals and administrators. I have been here four years and I love the office, my boss, and the work.

About six months ago my boss hired a new person—who is a peer to me—to run another team that does work similar to what my team does. She is a bully. She literally yells at everyone in the office. She storms out of meetings, goes and talks to clients behind my back and tells them all the things she thinks I am doing wrong.

She is wreaking havoc with everyone in the office. I now time my lunch so I don’t run into her in the break room. She is so unpleasant that it is literally taking a toll on my health and I am considering taking another job. But I love it here and was hoping to finish out the last few years of my career here. What do you think?

Bullied


Dear Bullied,

I consulted our talent engagement manager who has just completed his Ph.D. dissertation on workplace bullying. The field is quite new and there is a lot that is still not known or understood about workplace bullying and how to stop it. Workplace bullying, it turns out, is quite different from what happens in school.

The leader in this field is Dr. Gary Namie, whose website is http://www.workplacebullying.org/. This is an excellent resource that will help you to frame your own experience and find potential ideas for what to do.

From reading your letter, though, I can point out that you do have power here. This person is not your boss, and you have a good relationship with your boss. This is good because it means the bully does not have the power to retaliate against you, so you can actually stand up to her. Be ready to set boundaries with her—“Do not contact my clients without my express permission,” “Do not yell at me,”—because you can and you should. You have already given her power by allowing her ridiculous behavior. You can tell her that her behavior is ridiculous and you won’t allow it.

It sounds like you are not the lone target—the bully treats everyone horribly. This is good also, because it means you have not been singled out for ill treatment. Bullies often target one person who is a threat and try to break them down systematically. Possibly this person is not so much a bully as just plain awful, possibly nuts, and eventually HR will figure it out and she will be fired. You can make their job easier by documenting every single interaction in which you feel threatened, whether it happens specifically to you or you observe it happening to someone else. When things come to a head—which they inevitably will because your boss can’t allow it to go on forever—you will have your ducks in a row.

In the meantime, since you have a great relationship with your boss, you might share with him that you are considering taking another job because this person has made things so unpleasant. But also tell him that you love it where you are, you enjoy working with him, and you were hoping to stay. You could actually pull the “It’s her or me” card, which is a rare card to have in your hand. You are probably the kind of nice person who wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing, but that’s what I’m here for. This could be a good wake-up call for him. Often, bosses are at a loss when they realize their new hire is a terrible mistake, and they put their heads in the sand and hope it will go away. This is not going away.

Mostly we don’t get what we deserve; we get what we fight for. Stay strong, Bullied. If you really need to go, then go. But it sounds to me like you can fight and win this one. So put on your armor, get up on your horse, and try.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

4 thoughts on “Workplace Bullying? Ask Madeleine

  1. What a sad situation. It can be difficult to deal with peers that are prepared to use tactics like talking behind our backs, shouting, bad-mouthing, telling tales… ‘Bullied’ sounds like it doesn’t come naturally to take this up with the boss, perhaps because it seems like back-biting? It seems to me that it is crucial to stand back from the subjective, personal aspects of this and take the stance of a neutral observer. What would such a neutral observer tell the boss? How would the ‘report’ be framed in professional terms and professional language to show maturity and wisdom in terms of understanding of how this bullying is affecting the team, the team’s morale, potential for absenteeism, loss of business – and impact on the bottom line? This kind of approach would seem to fit with the natural predisposition of ‘Bullied’ and would be an obvious contrast to the approach of the bully. Any boss worth his or her salt would welcome a bit of sanity and restraint which at the same time helps him/her deal with a deteriorating situation. Thanks for commenting Madeleine! These scenarios are always challenging, and we all learn a lot from thinking about them!

      • You’re welcome. I really appreciate ‘Ask Madeleine’ because these are real, fairly common scenarios. The process of checking out the scenarios, your advice, the other comments (when there are some!), and possibly commenting oneself is a great way of practical learning because discussing with others is where the insight comes. Exchanging views and tips means we as coaches can help each other to help more people, and that in time will mean workplaces become better and more conducive to team and individual well-being. That’s what we can all hope anyway! Thanks again, and I look forward to another chat!

  2. Seven environments that without good systems and healthy balance feed the misuse of power: teacher/student; political party in power/opposition; law enforcement/citizen; military/nonmilitary; management/labor; wealthy/impoverished; adult/child. We all need to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

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