Money & Career

Adult bullying: Is it happening to you?

Author: Canadian Living

Money & Career

Adult bullying: Is it happening to you?

Kelly is an impressive woman: charming, tall, confident and a pleasure to be around. Her track record as a stellar and well-liked employee is impeccable. Kelly, 51, was promoted regularly throughout her career, and people value her opinion; former coworkers keep in touch and often turn to her for advice.

Three years ago, after successfully battling a serious illness, Kelly left a demanding position in the private sector in search of fewer deadlines and earlier nights. She accepted a management position at a government department, working indirectly with youth, because it appealed to her ethics. "The organization had a cause. I liked that," she says.

Tension at the office
But almost immediately Kelly noticed something amiss. Employees rarely chatted, tension was in the air, and her staff soon began complaining to her about unrealistic deadlines or being shot down whenever they expressed ideas or concerns to management. Many were afraid they were going to lose their jobs because the feedback from the head boss -- nicknamed Dragon Lady -- was always negative. "They were being told things like, 'Your work is falling behind; you must be lazy,'" says Kelly.

Then one morning the boss sauntered through Kelly's department and complained that some of her staff weren’t there by 8:30. "Your productivity levels must be very low," she declared. Kelly stuck up for her employees and explained that she had given them permission to come in at 9:30 or later when they had worked late the night before. Dragon Lady didn’t argue, so Kelly thought it was the end of that. She was wrong.

"All of a sudden my work schedule became a big problem," says Kelly, who had negotiated flexible work hours when she was hired to avoid rush-hour traffic. Her boss started demanding that she arrive by 8:30. "It was brought up every week in meetings: Why was I not there earlier?" 

Page 1 of 5 -- Learn more about the emotional and psychological effects of adult bullying on page 2
Months of pressure
After months of pressure from her boss, Kelly dug out her notes from her meeting with HR and sent a letter to both HR and her superior outlining what had been arranged. Nothing more was said on this topic, but Kelly was ordered to numerous early morning meetings that were irrelevant to her. She ended up staying later, sometimes until midnight, to complete her work and was shut down whenever she offered options. “I felt absolutely humiliated,” she says. “I was being treated like a little child. There were days I cried all the way home.”

One day Kelly lamented her current work situation to a former boss over lunch. He looked at Kelly and told her, “You are being bullied.”

“It was one of those a-ha moments,” says Kelly. “I was able to step out of my workplace environment and look at what was going on as an observer.” Kelly could see the intimidation, fear tactics, shaming and silencing – the bullying.

Bullies, bullies everywhere
Adult bullying takes place at the park, in parent committees and kids’ sporting events; among people in volunteer and peer groups; and even in families. Examples of outright physical bullying among adults include Stewart Ferguson of Pakenham, Ont., near Ottawa, who was sentenced in 2005 to 18 months probation for shoving a referee into a door frame after his son was thrown out of a minor league hockey game. But more often adult bullying is emotional.

The Canada Safety Council defines adult bullying as a “grab for control by an insecure, inadequate person, an exercise of power through the humiliation of the target.” It involves humiliation or abusive words that lower a person’s self-esteem. It can take the form of rude, degrading or offensive remarks; intimidating gestures; or discrediting a person by spreading rumours, ridiculing her or calling into question her convictions and private life. It can also be about belittling a person by making her do tasks below her skill level.

According to the International Labour Organization, physical and emotional violence is one of the most serious issues facing the workplace today because the psychological wounds can run deep. The Commission des normes du travail, which enforces labour standards in Quebec, has conducted surveys that show up to one in 10 workers in that province have been the subject of harmful bullying, intimidation or belittlement by a boss or coworker.

Page 2 of 5 -- Learn what Canada is doing to prevent workplace bullying on page 3Anti-bullying
In 2004, Quebec became the first province to enact legislation to protect workers from bullying (the law calls the phenomenon “psychological harassment”). More recently, Saskatchewan introduced amendments to its Occupational Health and Safety Act that explicitly prohibit psychological harassment. And cities such as Edmonton, Regina and Mississauga, Ont., have their own anti-bullying policies.

“The bully sees the use of threat, whether it is physical, financial or emotional, as the only way to get ahead,” says Dr. Anthony Ocana, a family physician in Vancouver, who founded HealthSmith Wellness Group to help businesses increase mental health and physical wellness in the workplace.

The bully is often successful in making his target feel isolated and insecure. The individual may lose confidence in her abilities, whether it’s on the job, on the PTA or as a parent participating in one of her child’s sport programs. She may become depressed, suffer from insomnia and even post-traumatic stress disorder and need medical attention, particularly if her livelihood is being threatened.

“In the workplace, people often put up with bullying because they’re afraid they could lose their jobs if they speak up,” says Beth Hedva, a psychologist in Calgary and author of Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness (Ten Speed, 2001). “It’s a very unhealthy position to be in.”

Many of us assume that a bully picks on people who are weaker; misfits or loners. But, like in childhood, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Kelly is proof of this. Indeed, the Canada Safety Council says adult bullies often choose targets who are capable and dedicated employees, or intelligent and attractive adults whose interpersonal style tends to be nonconfrontational.

On-the-job training
While there are no hard Canadian statistics, experts say adult bullying is pervasive, and the workplace may be spawning it. Having a sense of control is a natural human drive, explains Hedva, but the “North American culture does not see building relationships as the way to go. It’s about one up, one down.”

Downsizing, threats of layoffs and a corporate culture of competitiveness have created unstable work environments where anyone will do anything to keep his or her position.

“When the Wrong Woman Wins: Building Bullies and Perpetuating Patriarch” is a study by American management professors Penelope Brunner and Melinda Costello. The study reports that women openly harass and abuse other women just as much as their male counterparts.

Alarmingly, 84 per cent of those bullied are women, say the authors. Women in higher positions who feel they lack the skills of some of their subordinates may resort to bullying that involves intimidation by forming cliques and gossiping in an effort to exclude women who are seen as threats. But bullying isn’t just in the boardroom.

Page 3 of 5 -- Discover how workplace intimidation can affect your job performance on page 4Not just at work
Suppose you volunteered on a school committee to plan a fund-raising fair. The commitment requires that you meet once a week with a handful of parents for everyone to share ideas, pool skills and raise lots of money by hosting a great event. But one of the parents is a bully who always wants to have things her way.

At one meeting she criticizes your idea for a silent auction, cutting you off mid-sentence and making sarcastic comments at your expense. In the parking lot after another meeting, she waves an enthusiastic goodbye to everyone but you. A few days later she “forgets” to send you memos outlining everyone’s tasks but remembers to point out how slack you’ve been when the committee reconvenes. You notice some of the other parents are volunteering for fewer tasks and speaking up less often.

An hour before each meeting, your stomach lurches and you hope she won’t be there. You’ve stopped offering ideas. You feel shamed, belittled and silenced. The last time you felt this way was in the schoolyard when you were 10 years old at the mercy of the classroom bully. And that’s no coincidence.

Bullying is learned behaviour. As children, adult bullies were likely not taught how to communicate their needs, wants and goals in a healthy fashion. They may have observed their parents’ bullylike interactions with others and learned to mimic the behaviour.

“Some children watch their parents giving each other the silent treatment or talking poorly about friends and neighbours behind their backs,” says Lynn Glazier, a Canadian filmmaker and journalist who is known for the 2004 documentary It’s a Girl’s World. “Children internalize all these messages into their own social scripts and may grow up, if not stopped, into bullying adults.”

What may be a surprise is that bystanders – people who witness the bullying but do nothing to stop it – hold the balance of power. “With kids, as soon as a bully’s friends say we don’t want to play with you until you stop harassing so-and-so, the bullying stops immediately,” says Glazier who is currently working on a new documentary, It’s a Woman’s World: The Bitch at Work.

The problem is that bystanders all too often become silent because they are afraid the bully will turn her wrath against them. “Even if they don’t join in the bullying, the bystanders become a huge problem because they’re no support,” says Karen Learmonth, cohead of No Bully for Me, a Canadian support group, based in Vancouver, and resource for adult bullying . She says the target of the bullying feels she has no one to turn to and no one to trust.

Forget the negative
As soon as her old boss identified that she was being bullied, Kelly stopped taking the criticism from the Dragon Lady to heart. She still aims to produce the best she can on the job, but when her boss ostracizes her, Kelly just ignores the negative comments.

But like so many bullied individuals in the workplace, Kelly felt there was no one for her to turn to or complain to. And she was likely right. According to the Canada Safety Council, a bully is censored, transferred or terminated in only 13 per cent of cases. Sadly, of the people who complained about being bullied, 37 per cent were terminated.

So Kelly has come up with her own solution: go back to school and create a new career path. And she has fostered an accepting environment for her staff despite the bullying going on in other areas of her company. “I’m at the stage where if my boss doesn’t want me, she can fire me,” says Kelly. “The least I can do is show my staff there is another way.”

*Name has been changed.

Page 4 of 5 -- Learn 5 tips to combat adult bullying on page 5
Five tips to combat adult bullying
1. Consider the situation.   Kenneth Westhues, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo, Ont., says it is easier to deal with a bully outside the workplace, where your livelihood isn’t threatened. Regardless of where you are bullied, though, you need to assess your resources in comparison to the bully’s and then decide how to proceed. If it’s at work, transferring to a new department may be the simplest solution.

2. Take notes.   Karl Aquino, a management professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, suggests recording specific bullying instances. These notes can be useful if you need to bring the bullying to someone else’s attention. Writing down your experiences may have a positive effect on how you interpret and understand the situation.

3. Confront the bully.   In some situations, simply asserting yourself could end the bullying behaviour. Confront an abusive boss, for example, and speak to her calmly, outlining your concerns and providing examples of her behaviour.

4. Provide consequences.   If, after confronting the person, there is no response, Frema Engel, author of Taming the Beast: Getting Violence Out of the Workplace (Ashwell, 2004), suggests spelling out consequences, such as threatening to expose her behaviour. Keep in mind that it’s crucial to follow through, so be ready to act.

5. Report the behaviour.
   If the bullying continues, report it to a trusted superior. If your superior is the problem, go to human resources. If the harassment occurs outside of the workplace, such as at a sports club, speak to the administration.

Legal avenues
Richard Hammond, a lawyer and counsel to, a Canadian Internet service, outlines your legal options when dealing with a workplace bully.

• A Supreme Court of Canada ruling states employers have a duty to treat employees fairly and reasonably. This expectation is enforced in many ways. In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act invites you to make a complaint to the Employment Standards Board; board personnel meet with you and your employer to resolve the situation.

• If the bullying takes place within a union environment, you are usually required to settle it through grievance arbitration as a first step.

• If the bullying takes the shape of any type of discrimination or develops into violent or sexual harassment, a lawsuit may be a better remedy, says Hammond, because it is unlikely you will want to return to that workplace.

• Before starting a lawsuit, consider informal mediation or submitting a formal, in-house complaint. “Typically, you don’t start a lawsuit until everything else has broken down and you’re no longer able to negotiate.”

Not ready to go public? is a Canadian Internet service that allows employees to speak with supervisors about an issue without it being attributed to them.

Much like online dating services, you send your employer an anonymous message about the problem you’re having and your employer can respond within the secure channel. Christopher Knott, president of the Toronto-based company, says that it’s a good way to test the waters.

by Sara Ditta

This story was originally titled "Bullies in our midst" in the October 2007 issue.

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Money & Career

Adult bullying: Is it happening to you?