No Place for Bullies

By: Shawn E. Boynes, CAE

Bullying doesn't just happen in schools. An association professional shares his story of being bullied by a manager and urges organizations to know the signs of workplace bullying.

In the past year or so, the media have directed significant attention to heartbreaking cases of bullying around the country. These stories stir up strong emotions in those of us who have bad memories of being teased and threatened as children. As I watched one of the many news stories about the impact bullying has on people, I saw surprising similarities to an experience I once had—not as a child, but in the workplace. Yes, that's right, the workplace. Professional environments bring together adults that should know better, right?

Unfortunately, not always. My experience with workplace bullying ranged from subtle nonverbal cues to overt humiliation in front of colleagues. I was berated so much that I usually prepared myself to expect the worst when engaging with the bully manager. In one instance, a colleague pulled me aside to ask me if I was OK and further commented that the situation was very uncomfortable to witness.

Sadly, I'm not alone. I searched Google for the term "workplace bullying" and got 533,000 results. Clearly this is an issue worthy of more attention. Organizations must learn how to address and meet the needs of staff who are ostracized, picked on, talked about, threatened, ignored, and emotionally damaged within the work environment.

A major challenge to addressing those needs, though, is that the nature of bullying means it often goes unreported. When I finally had the courage to talk about being bullied, one of the first questions colleagues asked was, "Why didn't you tell anyone?" In schools and in the workplace, the response is pretty much the same: fear of retribution, fear that speaking up would only make the situation worse. My only consolation was realizing I wasn't the only one being bullied in the organization. Unfortunately, it was becoming more prevalent than anyone had been willing to admit.

Being a target of a bully manager left me paralyzed with fear and anxiety. I lost confidence in my ability to do my job well. My productivity suffered due to stress, lost sleep, and the distracting and constant replay in my mind of the question, "Why?"

The bully's techniques included:

Intimidation. Under the guise of coaching, the leader set unrealistic expectations for me. I was told that I needed to stretch beyond my comfort zone, but the goals were beyond the realm of possibility. When I could not meet those expectations, the leader pushed me to try harder.

Criticism. Related to the impossible standards above, I was criticized about my work and contribution and measured against what the leader had accomplished. There was no way for me to feel a sense of professional satisfaction, not to mention pride, because nothing I did was ever good enough.

Marginalization.  Despite my hard work and many successes, a good job was followed by the inevitable "but." My efforts were made insignificant because I was always left with the impression that I should have tried harder or worked longer hours.

It's easy to draw parallels between schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying, as well as with more obvious forms of discrimination. However, one big difference centers on power. A workplace bully exerts superficial power through the hierarchy of an organization. It is difficult to remember that you are an adult with skills, rights, and a voice when you are badgered into forgetting.

After transitioning to another organization, what I've learned has helped me become a better professional and a better manager. Knowing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a bully manager is something I do not want anyone else to experience. No one has the right to that kind of control over another person in the workplace. Life just doesn't work that way. My biggest regret is that I did not have the courage to speak up on my own behalf.

If you've had a similar experience, it's time to stand up for what's right. I also hope association managers and leaders will note the symptoms of workplace bullying and equip themselves with tools to defuse bullying before employees are hurt.

Shawn E. Boynes, CAE, is senior director of education at APIC—Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc., in Washington, DC, and a 2008-2009 ASAE Diversity in Executive Leadership Program Scholar. Email: [email protected]

Shawn E. Boynes, CAE