by J Richard Knapp
Stop Bullies Founder and CEO
Many years ago, people believed bullying started in the childhood years, peaked during adolescence, tapered down through the teens, and disappeared by adulthood. It is obvious that this belief is just another myth of bullying.
Our research studies are now finding that bullying in adults is far more persistent than we originally believed, and even more frequent than behaviors such as sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Research tells us that 1 in 5 workers have been bullied by an adult in the workplace during the past twelve months. In this article, we are going to examine one type of workplace bully that is becoming more prevalent in the workplace. This bully hides within the structure of an organization, most likely a high level supervisor, and is very difficult to see due to their high intelligence and covert attacks. They are the ‘serial bullies‘ of the working world.
Typically, serial bullies target one individual at a time. Their victims may be employees hired by a former supervisor or even an individual they hired. There are many examples of serial bullies who have hired an individual considered to be one of the ‘best and brightest’ in order to take them down at a later date. The supervising bully tends to be threatened by this type of worker who is skilled at cooperative and non-confronting behaviors[i].
The serial bully’s techniques are fairly standard. They often target the most promising of the organization. Some people believe this is because they feel threatened by the talent of the other person or the fact that this individual may be well-liked in the eyes of fellow workers and bosses. I see serial bullies simply as sick people who need to be removed from the organization as quickly as possible.
The serial bully often begins their assault by trying to gain the confidence of the potential victim. This is often followed by a period of time in which the serial bully builds up the victim in the eyes of fellow employees and others. In this way, the serial bully has created an image that there is no way he or she would ever attack the victim. This image becomes extremely valuable if the targeted employee decides to fight back. The serial bully has now effectively created a destructive illusion that is difficult for observers to see through.
With the illusion in place, the serial bully is now free to begin their assault on the victim!
I find attacks usually begin with unjustified criticism of the targeted individual. The targeted person is usually confounded by the change in the supervisor. They often allow the behavior in the supervisor to go unchallenged as ‘the boss is just having a bad day‘. The targeted person doesn’t truly realize they are now under a full scale attack by the serial bully that will not stop until they resign, disappear into obscurity, or become dismissed from their position.
The serial bully unleashes a battery of attacks on the victim such as searching for trivial faults, embarrassing them in front of fellow employees, ignoring, over ruling, and even isolation of the victim. The serial bully often makes a point to treat the rest of the employees with little or no conflict as part of the illusion.
Does it end at this point? I have found most of the individuals whom we classify as our ‘best and brightest’ do not quit. They have never experienced anything like this in their careers, and most of the time, don’t know how to react. Instead, they continue in their positions and try to find a way to survive the bullying.
The next level of attacks by the serial bully is even harsher than the previous attacks. The bully unleashes the rest of their weapons upon the victim. This may include attacks on their character, the spreading of rumors and lies, unrealistic work assignments and goals, reprimands, and eventually dismissal.[ii]
In hard and difficult economic times, serial bullies find enjoyment in dismissing their target who will now find it difficult to be rehired.
The entire workplace must understand that bullying destroys the organization by causing undue stress and ineffectiveness. This will result in time lost through absenteeism and the quality of the work. The organization eventually will lose its ‘best and brightest’ workers and their intelligence.
Experts suggest that an organization with one or more bullies will experience a negative spiral in productivity and create a negative environment within the workplace – the antithesis of dignity, respect, and understanding.
[i] Bullying in the Workplace; Canada Safety Council:Canada’s Voice and Resource for Safety, 2000
[ii] Tactics of a Workplace Serial Bully Boss, ABC – Anti-Bullying Crusaders Weblog, April 6, 2008