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Quality of Life: Don’t be a slug when dealing with a workplace bully

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Quality of LifeI don’t know if you recognize the name Scut Farkus, but if you do, you know that he is the coonskin-capped bully who tormented Ralphie Parker and his friends in the movie, “A Christmas Story.” In the film, Farkus terrorizes the kids in his neighborhood to the point that they run away whenever they see him. In one memorable scene, Ralphie’s brother, Randy, falls down while running to get away. The narrator’s description of the mishap is one of my all-time favorites: “Randy just lay on the ground like a slug. It was his only defense.”

Have you ever had to deal with a bully? If so, hopefully you didn’t have to resort to becoming slug-like in order to survive the experience.

Bullies in the workplace are not all that different from bullies on the playground – in large part because grown-up bullies (is that an oxymoron?) use many of the same tactics as their younger counterparts.

According to a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, a nonprofit organization in Bellingham, Wash., 35 percent of American workers reported being bullied at work.

In 2007 at a national conference on professional responsibility sponsored by the American Bar Association, one panel discussion focused on workplace bullies. Because the legal profession by its nature includes a great deal of competitiveness and confrontation, legal professionals sometimes misdirect those behaviors toward colleagues at inappropriate times and in inappropriate circumstances. Some firms acknowledge that bullies do exist in the legal community and create policies that attempt to weed out bullies or prevent the hiring of bullies in the first place.

WBI research shows that bullying usually takes one of four forms. 1) The bully can scream, taunt or yell, often in front of others, causing distress and humiliation for the target. The practiced bully knows how to bring the target’s performance into question in situations where the person is unable to defend himself – when the files, facts or figures needed to back up a position are not readily available. 2) The bully can criticize his or her target in private, ripping the individual to shreds and making accusations of gross incompetence. Interestingly, this tactic is usually inflicted upon an extremely competent target. 3) The bully is inconsistent – friendly one moment and extremely critical the next. This keeps the target off balance, never knowing what to expect. 4) The bully can make it impossible for the target to succeed by denying the resources the target needs to do his or her job, or by setting unrealistic deadlines that are impossible to meet.

Some bullies employ more than one of the tactics listed above. Most bullies are quite adept at the art from years of practice, and may start with what appear to be well-meaning constructive criticisms. At this stage, it is easy for the target to internalize the criticisms, taking them to heart and trying to “improve” his or her work performance. Initially, this is where the bully can do the most damage – because the target doesn’t yet realize that he or she is becoming the victim of a bully. It is the repetitive nature of the criticism that can start to chip away at the target’s confidence, causing the target to actually begin making mistakes due to the unrelenting stress caused by the criticisms.

It is important that the target recognize that he or she is being bullied – hopefully before it reaches a critical stage, as the effects of bullying can be severe. Early signs include: 1) You find yourself dreading the start of the work week; 2) You are tense and on edge when you are at the office; 3) When you go to the doctor, you find that your blood pressure has skyrocketed, and you are plagued by maladies that are caused by stress; 4) You find yourself taking days off for “mental health breaks.”

If you are the victim of a bully, you need either to confront the offender directly, and/or report it to management. In most workplaces, you will be told to try to handle it yourself, at least initially. To the extent you can, respond to the bully in a clear, concise, reasoned (and most importantly) firm fashion. Many times bullies will back off when they are confronted.

Sometimes, though, the practiced bully knows how to respond when confronted and can often manipulate the situation in his or her favor. It is best to document every bullying encounter that you experience and take that information to management or human resources. You may even want to seek counseling if the bully’s behavior starts to drain you emotionally.

According to a WBI study, targets are often more technically skilled than their bullies and are often the “go-to” veteran employees to whom other employees turn for guidance. When targets take steps to preserve their dignity and their right to be treated with respect, the bullies escalate their efforts to intimidate and degrade the target.

If you are the target of a bully, try to remember that he or she most likely has zeroed in on you because you are competent and sees you as a threat. You’ve heard the adage, “the best defense is a good offense.” The bully misplaces that advice and uses it to try to manipulate and threaten people he or she fears. Bullies go on the offensive toward those who aren’t actually threatening them – as the perceived threat is only in their minds.

Bullies engage in their bad behavior because they are insecure and feel vulnerable. That may be small comfort when it is happening to you, but it is something to keep in mind if you ever become a target. It is also important to remember that bullies usually get their comeuppance sooner or later. Even Scut Farkus got his in the end.•

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Jonna Kane MacDougall is assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law. A professional career/life coach, MacDougall can be contacted at 317-775-1804 or whatsnextcoaching@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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