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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.•

__________

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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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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