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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Don't let office bullies make you feel inferior

By Vicky Smith
Special to The Toronto Sun

Bullying still undermines interpersonal progress in progressive workplaces.

A situation came to my attention last week where a talented employee was bullied into quitting his job after only three months.
Understanding where bullying behaviour comes from can affect how an individual responds.

Tense dynamics between employee A (the person being bullied) and employee B (the bully) began with the victim's first day on the job. Employee B, who had been with the firm for 18 years, took it upon herself to ensure employee A was doing a good job.

That involved bombarding him with sarcasm, giving him sketchy information or forgetting to share valuable resources. Because employee A had very marketable skills, he dealt with the tyranny by finding another job.

Unfortunately, the company lost a potentially good employee, employee A's self-confidence was badly shaken and the bully now is certain to try to terrorize the next new person, too.

Verbal and physical aggression is visible and can be dealt with quickly. But subversive bullying, such as that described above, is difficult to detect. The bully is often a good performer, relied on by managers to keep the troops in line. Bullies get support from senior management because they are the knowledge holders within organizations.

Goal is to control

"Bullies are workplace politicians," say authors Gary and Ruth Namie in their book, The Bully at Work. "Their goal is to control people. To do this, they adopt tactics to shame, humiliate and treat others as powerless."

Employee B was threatened by Employee A's education and enthusiastic approach to the job. She saw him as a threat to her position of power and caused him to doubt his capabilities.

Why would an experienced, respected employee use bully tactics? On the surface, the bully shows confidence, even arrogance, but the need to control others comes from low self-esteem and a fear of being displaced by smarter, quicker or more dynamic people.

Research shows overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness and generosity.

Individuals who are bullied need to understand the bravado or aggression they face masks severe insecurities. Understanding where bullying behaviour comes from can affect how an individual responds.

Eric Berne, in his book, Games People Play, looks at dysfunctional interpersonal relationships as games.

If they realize the bully is playing the control game to mask feelings of inferiority, fewer people will accept a powerless role in the game.

My recommendation is to not retaliate, because that can escalate the bully's attacks.

First step

Often, the best first step is to approach a manager to discuss the situation. Employee A did try this, but in his case the manager abdicated responsibility by telling him to work it out with employee B.

The manager had let employee B have control for too long and avoided dealing with her.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

If employee A had chosen to stay in the job, he would have had to face the bully and state, "You have no power over me."

Cowering will only lead to more abuse, while confronting the situation will boost confidence and pride.

As well, employee A had options and no one needs to suffer a bully to keep a job. Thus, when the situation became intolerable, he moved on.

Unfortunately, the communications skills required to be able to take a stand and not bully back in retaliation are seldom taught well.

The best way to send a strong message of determination is through body language. Maintain strong eye contact, keep your face and body relaxed and say to yourself, "This person does not control me. I direct my own destiny."

Once an intended victim breaks eye contact, the bully knows the game is won.

Too many subversive, negative and damaging actions in workplaces cause people pain and humiliation.

We teach our children to say "No" when confronted with inappropriate situations and that needs to be a more active part of our adult vocabulary.

Vicky Smith is owner of Contact Human Resource Group, which is internationally partnered with Express Personnel Services. Reach her at

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