Self-reflection: Are you a workplace bully?
By Hilary Holladay
Over the past five years, I’ve given a lot of thought to workplace bullying. I moved 650 miles, back home to Virginia, to escape a bully at my old job. I have friends who have been similarly tormented. We’ve traded stories and consoled one another. Some of them, like me, have found new work, or they have X’ed off the calendar days and finally escaped their tormentors through retirement. But a lot of people don’t have those options just yet, and they shouldn’t have to leave otherwise rewarding jobs just because someone is trying to make them miserable. So they continue to suffer the anxiety, anger, and depression that come with being bullied.
Awareness of the problem reached a tipping point in Charlottesville after Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey’s suicide in 2010. The devastating event touched off dozens of news stories locally and nationally about workplace bullying. Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas’ thwarted attempt to oust UVa President Teresa Sullivan last summer raised the specter yet again. Everybody, it seems, is at risk of being bullied.
Many workplaces have instituted or strengthened policies dealing with this hot-button topic. It’s easy to find advice online for dealing with office bullies. The documentary film Bully, which focuses on students bullied at school, has contributed to the broader conversation. People are speaking out more frequently about what they’ve experienced. This provides hope as well as guidance for others still being victimized.
But it troubles me that the perpetrators are almost always left out of the public discussion. News articles typically describe the situation from the victim’s perspective. The online forums are for victims who anonymously share their sad tales of abuse and injustice.
Where, I ask, are the forums for recovering bullies? Where is the advice for them? No one identifies as a bully—no one I’ve ever known, anyway. Yet if so many people feel tormented at work, it stands to reason that there are quite a few bullies out there. Is it possible that some of us are bullies and don’t even know it? What if you are part of the problem that you so roundly condemn?
The first step, of course, is to figure out whether you are a bully. With that in mind, I have devised the following quiz to help you determine if you qualify for this ignominious distinction. Award yourself one stinkbug for each affirmative answer to the following questions:
• Have you ever snubbed a colleague or ignored her request for a meeting?
• Have you yelled at someone in your office or sent him an angry email?
• Have you ever gotten so close to a coworker during a dispute that she couldn’t get past you?
• Have you followed a colleague down the hall while speaking angrily to him?
• Have you worked behind the scenes to prevent someone from getting a promotion or a raise in pay?
• Have you tried to exclude a qualified colleague from an important committee or project?
• Have you ambushed someone in a meeting with a question or remark designed to embarrass him in front of others?
• Have you twisted a colleague’s words to make her look bad or made a fuss over a minor infraction just to get her in trouble?
• Have you denied a coworker credit for a job well done?
• And finally, have you ever tried to turn other staff members against a colleague you dislike?
If you’re holding even one stinkbug— that is, if you answered yes to even one of these questions— you’re a bully. No matter what your position— über-boss, mid-level supervisor, tenured or untenured professor, secretary or intern— you are a bully.
The label doesn’t sit well, does it? You may say that you are, in fact, a victim. You have occasionally stood up for yourself and fought back. You had to; it was a matter of survival, self-esteem. But I don’t buy that. If you have engaged in any of the behavior above, at some point you started playing for the other team. You may have some victim in you, but you are also a bully. Yes, you.
Here’s my advice: Don’t block out the trouble and pain you’ve caused, and don’t expect your spouse or best friend to make you feel like you were right to act the way you did. Instead, take a day off from work and go offline. Leave all your electronic distractions at home, and go for a long walk. Think about your actions and try not to rationalize.
Then resolve to quit your bullying ways. No more rudeness. No more plotting and scheming. When you’re tempted to criticize, don’t. Realize that you don’t have to fight every battle. Skip the cloak-and-dagger politicking and don’t try to hold someone else back. Remember that another person’s success doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Acknowledge that bullying is a sign you’re unhappy with yourself. Maybe it’s time to do something about that.
After a few weeks of holding your tongue, go a step further and try being nice—not just to your office pals but everybody you work with. Like so much else, it will come more naturally with practice. With any luck, by the time summer comes, you and all your colleagues will be getting along better without any stinkbugs to call your own.