Sisters, It’s Time for Change. We Must Find a Way to Stop Damaging Workplace Bullying, Sabotage and Gossip.

If you are a working woman, and you’ve never been a target of career damaging gossip, bullying or stealth sabotage at work, count yourself lucky.  Unfortunately, you are in the minority.  Yesterday I saw this video interview of Dr. Peggy Drexler, professor of psychiatry at Cornell School of Medicine on Bloomberg and I think it is worth a look.

In the film, The Devil Wears Prada, the protagonist’s outlandish behavior and over the top snark delivered meme-worthy moments aplenty. But in the real world, bullying and strategic sabotage among women at work is at an all-time high and it’s no laughing matter.  According to the Workplace Bullying Institute women bullies (who make up 40 percent of all workplace bullies) are reported to bully other women 70-80 percent of the time. And even more disturbing, 40% of all working women say they would rather work for a male boss.  If you are a women, this should make you stop and listen.

What Makes a Bully?

devil wears pradaEveryone has an inner mean girl that can be activated by certain personalities, but the self-aware individual knows how to stay honest with herself and develop strategies and accountability to keep it in check.  Those who don’t will employ a host of destructive behaviors in order to accomplish their conscious or subconscious goals.  Here are a few tactics used by female workplace bullies as noted by expert Dr. Erika Holiday, author of Mean Girls, Meaner Women.

  • Verbal abuse or physical threats or aggressiveness (includes behaviors intended to dominate, manipulate, intimidate, or coerce a woman into making remarks or behaving against her will
  • Words / gossip intended to undermine the victim’s self-esteem, question her perceptions, sense of self, sense of judgment or make her feel she is invisible.
  • Words / gossip intended to question the victim’s authority, credibility, image or reputation
  • Undue pressure that isolates and removes attention or emotional connection, and thwarts opportunities for participating in friendships and social/work groups.
  • Withholds necessary information, communication and opportunity necessary to do your job well.  Limits access to particular individuals, roles, assignments, meetings, committees, positions or activities; promotions or advancement being withheld; or access blocked to supervisors or mentors.
  • Being lied to, ostracized, socially excluded, demeaned or devalued, directly or indirectly.
  • A woman who takes credit for others’ work, blames others for her errors, and/or tries to make others disrespect you.
  • Women who encourage, support, observe or tolerate bullying behavior are responsible through their passive acceptance of damaging behavior.

If Your Lady Boss is a Bullying Saboteur…

As women reach higher levels of leadership and responsibilities, covert bullying behaviors take on nuances that are sometimes hard to put a finger on.  Research shows, when you are a senior leader and your female boss is new in her role, your risk for bullying increases.

 study led by Michelle Duguid, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School authored a concept she refers to as “value threat”.  “I propose that being the only woman who is a member of a high-status work group can produce a perceived threat of not being seen as a valued group member,” Duguid says. “This threat is likely to underlie…responses to other women as potential group members.”  Duguid identifies two forms of value threat that she thinks affect the behavior of females in high-status work groups— competitive threat and collective threat.

mean girls“Competitive threat is the fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified, competent or accepted than you are,” Duguid says.  Collective threat is concern about bringing in another woman with perceived lower qualifications.  With Collective threat, the token high value group member who is a woman worries a colleague might reinforce negative stereotypes about women and impact others’ impressions of them.”

It’s Not Simple, But It’s Expensive.

Woman to woman workplace bullying isn’t as simple as being disappointed in not finding friendship or sisterhood at work, it costs employers plenty, though they are often blind or indifferent to such dynamics, and largely unsupportive of targets.  In the vacuum left by ineffective and uninvolved senior leaders, cliques’, bullying, and gossip are given space to thrive, driving away the most talented individuals who refuse to sit down or lower themselves to the base behavior of their colleagues and fight back.

Who Gets Bullied?

So who is the woman most likely to become a bullying target at work? The Workplace Bullying Institute research identified the following common traits in their research:

“Targets are more technically skilled than their bullies. They are the “go-to” veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and co-workers can’t stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses steal credit from skilled targets.

Targets are better liked, they have more social skills, and quite likely possess greater emotional intelligence. They have empathy (even for their bullies). Colleagues, customers, and management (with exception to the bullies and their sponsors) appreciate the warmth that the targets bring to the workplace.

Targets are ethical and honest. Some targets are whistleblowers who expose fraudulent practices. Every whistleblower is bullied. Targets are not schemers or slimy con artists. They tend to be guileless. The most easily exploited targets are people with personalities founded on a prosocial orientation — a desire to help, heal, teach, develop, nurture others.

Targets are non-confrontational. They do not respond to aggression with aggression.”

The research report unanimously supports the anecdotal research of women coaches, leaders and authors who study and write about females bullying other females in the workplace.  Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster, authors of the book, Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal have great advice and insight to offer women who find themselves in the midst of workplace bullying, as well as women who know they might have a few mean girl tendencies.

The reasons why bullies bully are as innumerable as the individuals involved.  Research tends to back up what Mom told you.  People who tear down other people don’t feel confident or good about themselves. Katherine Crowley (Mean Girls at Work author) suggested, “It comes from internal conflict—wanting everyone to be your friend versus needing to compete with other women at work. I may really like someone, but I can be extremely jealous if she gets promoted, and then be tempted to put her down when she tries to tell me what to do.”albright

Women handle competition in the workplace differently than men do, and with all of the above information, change can seem impossible.  But I personally believe there are women in the workplace who are determined to see real change, and not just for themselves, but for every working woman.   One way women are working on creating transparency and attempting to expose companies who tolerate, and thereby sanction, a bullying culture in the workplace, is  

States like California are leading the way, adding anti-bullying statutes to Healthy Workplace legislation and offering bullied employees forced from their jobs legal recourse.  Other countries, such as Australia and the UK already have remedies in place to penalize companies who turn a blind eye to bullying behavior.

What Should Women Who Want to Stop Workplace Bullying Do?

  1. Stand with the bullied.  If your workplace culture is toxic, gather your colleagues off site and talk about it. Offer to go with the bullied co-worker to meet with leadership or write down your observations.  Remember this quote and live by it: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke) Refuse to become a co-bully by failing to do what is in the best interests of everyone.
  2.  If you have the power to effect change, get busy. Reward emotional intelligence in your workplace, have a conflict resolution process that is open and fair.  Anticipate conflict and train your employees in standards of constructive criticism and feedback.
  3. Encourage adherence to existing policies.  The International Justice Mission is an organization of lawyers, investigators, former law enforcement and other brave folks who want to put a stop to human trafficking and violence.  Their strategy is to go in and rescue those in harm’s way and compel those in authority to enforce the laws already on the books.  In the process they often expose corrupt  leadership. Most companies have policies against bullying behavior, but it takes a courageous few to stand up and ask for a second look at policies in place intended to preserve a healthy workplace.

Yes, it is scary to take a stand in an “at will” state where your employer can dismiss you for no reason. It might cost you the job to do what’s right, and that will cause financial difficulties for most people. But there is peace and confidence to be found in doing the right thing.  Doing what is right will never be easy…isn’t that what we teach our children?  Does that change when the stakes are higher? No, not so much.  But truth is truth, no matter where you find it, and it never changes.

I would love to hear your stories and challenges with bullying in the workplace.  I am working on a supportive guide for those who have experienced this phenomenon designed to encourage and uplift…emergency mantras for managing the bully at work.  My promise to you, I won’t share your email address, your name or any identifying details anywhere in print or online without your permission.  This is about encouraging one another, being brave together.  Write your story and what you wish you’d known then or what might have given you some comfort. Quotes, resources, online communities, whatever helped you find your way through.  Let your experience be light for someone else’s path.

Email your stories to:

Thank you for reading and please share this with your friends.

grace + peace,