Researchers warn bully bosses threaten productivity and office safety
May 16, 2004
by Chris Morris
FREDERICTON (CP) - For fed-up nurses at one New Brunswick hospital, the "code pink" is their unique way of coping with one of worst scourges of the modern workplace - the bully boss.
The nurses could no longer stand the vile temper and bad language directed at them by one particularly belligerent physician, but hospital administrators were not sympathetic. "They came up with a solution on their own to curb his behaviour," said Marilyn Noble, a Fredericton-based researcher in workplace bullying.
"When he is on a rant, they call a code pink. Any nurse who can spare the time comes and stands in a circle as a silent observer and watches him. The impact is he looks up, realizes there are witnesses who might report him and he shuts down."
Workplace bullies - people who target workers for intimidation, belittlement and humiliation - are themselves becoming the targets of individuals and groups promoting respectful and safe workplaces in Canada.
Marilyn Noble, one of two researchers studying workplace bullying at the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research in Fredericton, says she has been beseiged by people with stories to tell about bullies in their offices.
"There's a pent-up need to talk about this," said Noble, who will be conducting public forums across New Brunswick later this month to discuss bullying.
"If I talk to 100 people in social situations and I say I'm working on workplace bullying, there might be two people who look at me like I've got three heads, and there would be 98 who would grab me by the arm and say, 'Have I got a story for you."'
When Noble appeared recently on a CBC Radio phone-in show, the lines lit up with people talking about their grim situations in the workplace, including one man who said he was suicidal after dealing with a supervisor he described as a "sociopathic serial bully."
Heather Gray of Edmonton, president and CEO of the consulting firm Threat Assessment and Management Associates Inc., said there's much more at stake in controlling bullying than simply keeping workers happy and productive.
She said it's a major safety issue.
"Once in a while, we see people driven to such extremes they may lash out at the company, not only in the form of a lawsuit, but violently."
Gray points to the case of OC Transpo in Ottawa, where four employees were fatally shot in April 1999 by Pierre Lebrun, who then took his own life.
Lebrun had been teased and tormented for years by his co-workers at OC, but the company had never addressed the bullying problem.
Gray said she is particularly disturbed when companies boast that bullying tactics are their way of forcing people to quit.
She says companies need to be aware of the damage caused by those tactics.
"People are broken to the extent that if they aren't actively suicidal, they're seriously depressed," she said.
"Self-esteem is damaged to the point where they're not functioning well at work and in their personal relationships. It does an extraordinary amount of damage to the individual."
Gray said bullies have a number of traits in common.
They are usually in supervisory roles and their overriding objectives are power, domination and subjugation.
Noble said that sometimes bullying behaviour is unwitting, but more often it is deliberate.
"There are mean-spirited people who have no power or control in other parts of their life so they exercise it in the workplace," she said.
"Some of these people have very poor interpersonal skills and there are others who simply get glee out of putting other people down and making them squirm."
The targets of bullies also have traits in common.
Gray said they're generally good performers and are often targeted because of their competence, which may threaten the bully supervisor.
She remembers one case where workers in a specialized unit found themselves under the supervision of a person who did not fully understand the work being done.
She says the supervisor felt a need to prove himself by tormenting and humiliating the competent workers and within three years, six of the people in the unit - one-third of its workforce - had quit in disgust.
Gray says targeted workers are not wired the same way as the bully and most quit their jobs.
Although federal legislation is pending that will help protect federal public servants from workplace bullies, most legislation in Canada offers little or no help.
Noble says the ultimate solution is for companies and organizations to identify intervenors at every level of their operations, unbiased people to whom workers can go with a complaint.
"Otherwise, they have no place to turn," she says.