What To Do When You Work For A Bully

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By Nancy Collamer


More than 25 years have passed since my one, and thankfully only, experience working for a bully. But I can still remember how the sound of his voice would send my stress levels through the roof. I tolerated his behavior for nearly a year before deciding to resign -- and I haven't worked for another employer since.

So I was surprised by a new study by Australian psychologist Michelle McQuaid, due to be released Tuesday in conjunction with National Bosses Day, showing that only 30 percent of people 50 and older think a bully boss can impact their health; a whopping 73 percent of their younger counterparts think so.

Having lived through the experience myself, I agree with the younger generation on this one.


Workplace Bullies And Your Health

A bully's effect on your emotional and physical health can be so severe that it's been likened to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, a group sponsoring Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week this week.

The economic costs of bullying are real. A recent Forbes magazine article by David K. Williams, noted that bullying results in increased absenteeism, poor employee morale and lost productivity, costing American businesses an estimated $360 million a year.

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What To Do When You Work For A Bully

After 15 years as a second fiddle -- i.e., newsreader -- Ann Curry was tapped to become Matt Lauer’s co-anchor on the "Today" show in May 2011. As the newsreader, she won plaudits for her enterprising journalism, which took her to far-flung reporting assignments in hotspots like Darfur, Sudan, back in 2007. Just a year into co-anchor role, Curry was sidelined to a lesser role at NBC. Why? According to NBC News president Steve Capus, Curry was wrong for the job because of her journalistic seriousness.

"I think her real passion is built around reporting on international stories. It’s tough to convey a sincere interest in something if you don’t possess it," he said.

For her part, a dismayed Curry partly agreed. "I've tried to wear clogs and flats on TV and it hasn't gone well with my bosses," she said. Either way, the show is no more the better in the vital ratings department after Curry’s departure; "Today" had an average of 4.9 million viewers during her last 10 weeks, slipping to 4.6 million during the next 10 weeks after she left.

Every visionary needs a trusted sidekick to help realize his or her big aspirations. For Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that person is Sheryl Sandberg. Three years after creating Facebook from his dorm at Harvard University, Zuckerberg met Sandberg, then heading up the online sales division for Google Inc. She came on board in 2007 as the chief operating officer, and in three years' time, the social network began turning a profit thanks to the discreet advertising strategy she oversees. One successful program has been the sponsored stories, in which Facebook users mention a brand they are either using or visiting in their timeline.

Along the way, she has also become a pioneer for women, becoming the first woman to join the company’s board. Her TED talk, "Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders," is also being turned into her first book.

Of course, the company's initial public stock offering this year hasn't been quite the success management hoped for, and Facebook Inc.'s valuation has dropped to $50 billion from $100 billion. But that's still not too shabby a number for a website powered in part by pictures of fraternity parties. Either way, Sandberg's star has hardly been blemished by the struggles. With the 2012 campaign in full swing, the Obama administration is already eyeing Sandberg for top spots in a second term. According to Politico, she "might be asked to be Treasury secretary or, more likely, to succeed Gene Sperling as director of the National Economic Council." Regardless, Sandberg's book, titled, "LEAN IN: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," is due out in March.

In your interview for the big gig, it helps to knock it out of the park. So with the 2008 Republican convention just days away, and no final selection made about who Republican presidential hopeful John McCain would choose as his running mate, it seemed like a stroke of divine luck to the campaign when the little-known governor of Alaska showed up for her interview at McCain’s ranch in Sedona, Ariz. "You can't blink, sir," Sarah Palin reportedly told McCain about any hesitation she may have in representing a presidential platform that might veer from her own brand of populist conservatism, according to the popular book about the 2008 election, "Game Change."

And at first, Palin seemed like the perfect second fiddle, capable of not just giving a pitch perfect endorsement for the boss, but also doing so with a burst of energy that looked like it could only further the cause. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer," Palin told the 2008 Republican National Convention, referring to then Democratic candidate Barack Obama. "Except that you have actual responsibilities." But then Palin hurt the ticket went it was revealed Palin couldn't name a newspaper, among other snafus. And of course, she violated one of the first rules of being a good sidekick -- she ignored directions from the boss.  Indeed, on the night of the election, Palin expressed frustration she wasn’t going to deliver her own concession speech. She was told by McCain's people such a move would break from tradition, as no vice presidential candidate had ever delivered a concession speech before, and the night belonged to McCain.

Since then, though, Palin has amassed wealth and fame as a broadcaster and author. Palin has been tight-lipped about her finances, though she reputedly got $7 million to write her first book, ensuring she likely won't be anyone's sidekick again.

When the team star is known simply as "Air," it's tough to keep up when you are bound by less heavenly realities. But Scottie Pippen hardly ever minded being second dog to Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls basketball team when the club cobbled together six championships during eight seasons. And in that time, which spanned from 1990 to 1998, Pippen proved more than willing to take the rough on-the-court assignments that don’t show up in the score-box, such as guarding living legend Magic Johnson during the 1991 NBA finals. To this day, Jordan retains an appreciation for Pippen, and he even showed up at Pippen's 47th birthday for a dance-off.

But when Jordan temporarily retired from the game during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons, Pippen was simply less excited about being a team player. With the clock winding down in a close playoff game against archrival New York Knicks, the team decided it still wasn't Pippen’s moment to take the final shot, even with Jordan gone from the team. So coach Phil Jackson drew up a play for forward Toni Kukoc. Pippen was so frustrated by the decision he asked to sit out, rather than assist the team. After seasons in which his coach had nothing but praise for Pippen, Jackson was left speechless. "He asked out of the play, and I left him off the floor. That's all I'm going to talk about that."

"Here’s Johnny," was bellowed every night for 30 years by Ed McMahon to introduce his boss, Johnny Carson, on "The Tonight Show." The avuncular presence demonstrated by McMahon wasn't, however, the whole story behind perhaps the most famous second fiddle in the history of show business. From time to time, McMahon showed he had all the necessary tools to take on the top position on the show. For instance, he once turned to comedian Jerry Lewis and served up this zinger: "You're such a great mimic ... why don't you mimic humble for a minute?"

But McMahon was comfortable in his role as the show’s announcer from 1962-1992. When asked by People magazine in 1990 if he ever hope to replace Carson, his answer was simple: "No." McMahon then explained: "I did host the show in the beginning, maybe 12 times. But at this point I don't want to disturb the audience. They like me where I am. People think, 'there's Johnny, there's Ed.' I don't want to throw the thing out of whack."

For fans of daytime TV, there is perhaps no more memorable duo than Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. The long-time friends met in the late 1970s when the were both working at a Baltimore TV station, where Winfrey was a news anchor and King was toiling away as a production assistant. But fame soon knocked on Winfrey's door and King came along for the ride. By 1986 Winfrey was hosting the now iconic "Oprah Winfrey Show," which ran for 25 years. As her fame and influence grew, King was also redefined in the process.

The two women owe their sister-like friendship to their similar sensibilities. "It's very nice to have someone who really gets you -- really gets you," King told The New York Times last year. Their close-knit relationship fueled rumors of a lesbian affair, though both have said they are heterosexual. King used to bristle at the gossip, but told the newspaper that she has since become resigned. "There will always be people that believe it," she said, "and there's nothing I can do, and I truly no longer care." As some good sidekicks do, King followed in her boss's footsteps, hosting her own talk show on Winfrey's OWN cable-TV network. Then she got the big offer to be a star of her own, and now she is co-host of CBS This Morning, seated alongside broadcasting giant, interviewer Charlie Rose. By all accounts, Oprah Winfrey remains her close friend and supporter.

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Bullies vs. Bad Bosses

Of course, not all bad bosses are bullies and it's important to understand the distinction.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is defined as repeated health-harming behaviors that can include verbal abuse, offensive conduct and intentional sabotage. Employees targeted by bully bosses stand a 64 percent chance of losing their jobs, the institute says, because they get fired or the bullying makes them too ill to work. In other words, a bad boss can make your life unpleasant, but a bully can be downright dangerous.

More: Why Your Workplace May Be Bad For Your Health

So what do you do if you're in your 50s or 60s and stuck working for a bully? Firing back at your boss or quitting your job can be treacherous in this economy.

To help answer the question, I turned to three experts: Maud Purcell, a psychotherapist and executive director of the Life Center of Darien, Conn.; psychologist Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute; and McQuaid, who is the author of the new, colorfully named book, 5 Reasons to Tell Your Boss to Go F**k Themselves: How Positive Psychology Can Help You Get What You Want. Here are their recommendations:


3 Tips For Handling Bullies At Work

1. Understand what sets your boss off.

McQuaid points out that we all have irrational, fear-based beliefs that can trigger our worst behaviors when given news we don't expect. The same is true for your boss. Once you understand your bully boss's trigger points, you might find better ways to work around them.

For example, if your boss is a numbers person, try to give him or her more data-intensive reports. If the bully tends to be cranky in the morning, try to plan your meetings with him or her later in the day. Little changes like these can (sometimes) make a big difference.

2. Focus on controlling your stress.

High stress levels due to the bullying can undermine your performance at work and harm your health. To counteract the mental health effects of bullying, Purcell advises you to get plenty of sleep, exercise and keep as much distance as possible from the bully.

3. If you choose to confront your employer, do it carefully.

At some point, you'll need to decide whether to confront your boss about the bullying behavior. If you do want to have a conversation, Purcell says, be assertive but not aggressive in your approach.

If nothing changes after speaking with your boss, or the situation worsens, you may want to plead your case to upper management.

That step can be risky, though. Yes, it might get your boss to change his or her ways or even get the bully fired. But if the brass sides with your bully, you could be out of a job.

To help protect yourself, Namie recommends that you keep the conversation with the bully's boss focused on the impact that the behavior has on the employer's bottom line. Most important, Namie says, is to stay calm. "Emotional pleas almost always backfire," he says.


No matter what steps you take to deal with the workplace bully, don't blame yourself for a situation that likely isn't your fault. As the Workplace Bullying Institute site says, "The fact that bullies feel threatened speaks volumes about them, not about you."

Nancy Collamer, M.S. is a career coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. Her website is MyLifestyleCareer.com; on Twitter she is @NancyCollamer.






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