Dealing With A Workplace Bully


Emotional Vampires At WorkBullies can do worse things than fire you or undermine your self-esteem.  Most corporate scandals begin with a conversation like this.  How would you respond?

“Your figures are way off,” Darth, your bully of a boss, says.  “Run them again.  Now.”

The figures are accurate, but not very heartening.  You’ve run them every way you can think of, and you’re absolutely certain.  There is no way short of cooking the books that can make the numbers more favorable. 

Darth also knows that the figures are accurate.  Is he suggesting that you to change them without actually saying anything incriminating?

If you comply with a vaguely threatening suggestion like this, the bully will own your soul and you will go over to the dark side.

It is in ambiguous conversations like this that white-collar crimes begin.  What would you do?

Having talked to a number of people who wish they had chosen otherwise, I can offer the following advice:

  • Check Your Moral Compass –Facts, especially in the financial area, are facts.  Always let your work show that they are.  Never let anyone persuade you to alter numbers. This is a real moral issue worth losing your job over.  If you make even a tiny change now, the bully’s demands will never end.
  • Play Dumb — Do exactly as Darth asks, no more, no less.  Run the figures again and tell him you got the same result.  If he wants something besides deniability, make him ask for it.
  • Be Smart — Don’t merely accept purportedly new numbers or any other new information you may be offered; check everything thoroughly.  Ask how numbers were calculated and where new information came from.  Ignore implied threats or promises.  Take strength in knowing that if you refuse to alter anything  the bully can do you far less damage in the long run than if you comply.  Also remember that no matter how hard he makes it for you, it’s easier than being indicted.
  • Don’t Keep Secrets — When you are confronted with a moral dilemma, always share it with someone you trust.  Your own moral compass may be influenced by the magnetic pull of  the bully’s demands.  A close friend, preferably one outside the organization, can help you keep your bearings.  Please note that I am not suggesting that you inform on  the bully, or talk about his veiled demand with coworkers or managers.  You have nothing but easily denied speculations.  If you make them public without an airtight case, he will know, and can eat you alive.
  • Say No, even if You Are Terrified — If a Bully like Darth gives you a direct order to do something that is illegal or immoral, tell him no directly – If he orders you to alter the figures, ask for some time to think, which will at least break his rhythm.  When the time is up, say you’re sorry but you are unwilling to make the changes.   This will take courage, because he may fire you on the spot.  Or not.
    If  the bully can get away with firing you for refusing to do something illegal, you are probably better off being gone, because it is likely that the rest of the management team supports his clandestine maneuvers.   If his illegal activities come to light, it will be people at your level who take the blame and take the fall.  Darth, like every crooked boss before him, will claim he had no idea of what was going on in his department.
  • Before You Go Public, Contact an Attorney — If you are considering blowing the whistle on a bully, you will need expert advice.  Find an expert before you say anything to anyone in the organization.  Your attorney will tell you that everything you say is on the record.
Be safe; be well; be at peace,

Please NOTE:  Albert J. Bernstein PhD is a Clinical Psychologist, Speaker and Business Consultant, and author of Emotional Vampires At Work, which can be purchased here.  He is guest blogging Dr. K’s blog while Dr. K takes a sabbatical.  Dr. K will return in July.

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