Workplace bullies tend to follow predictable patterns of behavior:
- The bully initially repeatedly reprimands the better than average target for trivial matters and those that would be described completely differently by the target. The bully repeatedly puts the target down.
- The bully convinces others that the target is incompetent, so others can begin to shun the target and unwittingly participate in the emotional abuse.
- The bully drives the target to report the problem to the bully’s boss or to Human Resources and then escalates the bully behavior.
- The bully makes their tactics so outrageous that the target’s support system (family and friends) doesn’t believe the target and can’t offer advice. Then these family and friends become tired of hearing the target obsessively repeat issues that can’t be resolved.
- The target is now very much alone and increasingly vulnerable to suicide. Targets try everything and then give up hope. If not stopped, the prolonged abuse causes depression and often suicidal thoughts. “Targets who sense that they’re about to be fired and cannot cope with that eventuality are vulnerable to suicide,” adds reporter Natasha Wallace in her article “Suicide, When Related to Workplace Bullying.”
Why bullies bully
Researchers tested to see if qualities of workplace bullying targets brought on uninvited psychological assaults but found nothing: zero data to support reason to blame the victim. In other words, targets are not simply those with exploited weakness.
In fact, evidence shows the opposite. Targets are often high performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low performing, low ethical bosses. Targets often:
- Refuse to be subservient (58% claimed this to be a reason for being targeted)
- Are technically more competent than their aggressors (56%)
- Are envied, and thus resented, for their cooperativeness and being liked by others (49%)
- Report illegal/unethical conduct, whistleblowers (46%)
- Are vulnerable in some way (38% had been previously traumatized in or out of work) (The Bully At Work, 2009).
“Bullied targets are not weak,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Many targets are strong and stubborn to their own detriment, staying in abusive situations too long. Their health suffers (stress-related diseases start rather quickly) but the symptoms are negligible and are ignored until medical crises surface.”
The bully’s only real motivator is to battle the target while having the upper hand – an unethical tactic used to uphold the image they long for but are unable to get through competence:
- They abuse their power. They care about hurting, manipulating, controlling, and eliminating the target (generally after two years after the employee’s start date). They are kiss up, kick down managers who are masters of deception.
- They deceive others into thinking the target is the problem. They use the emotional abuse they caused to convince others that the target is mentally ill, setting the stage for mobbing, in which coworkers join in to isolate the target.
The trouble with competence and ethics
Normally having competence and ethics would help someone sleep at night. But with these traits, a workplace bullying target can find themselves on a slippery slope to suicide contemplation – or “bullycide” – and it can happen to any of us.
Workplace bullying can cause a target to abandon hope over time, to not see a future or alternatives. Abuse tactics are often so outrageous that no one believes the target when a bully attacks. They think the target must have done something wrong or exaggerates. Then abandonment by coworkers and impatience of family members and friends lead to utter loneliness and despair. When everything they try fails, they lose all hope. “Bullying causes severe health harm, much more acute than is experienced by those sexually harassed. Anxiety (80%); panic attacks (52%); depression (49%); PTSD diagnosis (30%); suffering intrusive thoughts/flashbacks (50%); sleep disorders (77%); hypertension (59%) to name some of the negative health consequences,” says WBI. Bullying can also produce confusion, emotional numbness, and the fight-or-flight reaction normally associated with traumatic stress.
These responses are natural. “Depression is caused by the unremitting abusive conduct. And their lives unravel if it is not stopped…. It is the nature of the human stress response. With prolonged exposure to distress, changes in the brain occur. Thanks to modern neuroscience studies of social phenomena like ostracism, stress, and bullying, we know that atrophy of key areas of the brain impair decision making. Thus, it is highly likely that a brain flooded with steroidal glucocorticoids is not capable of clear, rational thinking. Suicide is the result of the failure to imagine alternatives to one’s current reality,” adds WBI.
All health harm from bullying is attributable to prolonged exposure. “Ending the distress allows the person to recover. The brain literally ‘heals’ thanks to its property of plasticity. Restored gray matter volume brings back lost cognitive abilities — better decision making, optimism, a visualized future,” says WBI.
But if the person stays in the stressful situation, it’s another story. “If exposed long enough to severe workplace bullying, two outcomes become likely. First, the target’s health is jeopardized. Second, unremitting stress can cause loss of the ability to discern and make choices to get oneself to safety due to physiological changes in the brain. The second outcome can lead to suicide. One WBI 2012 study found that 29 percent of bullied targets considered suicide; 16 percent actually had a plan to execute.”
Five workplace bullying targets who took their lives
Sadly, these five workplace bullying targets never made it to the healing phase and took their lives:
Nicole Mittendorff, cyberbullied with character assaults
Virginia Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff was cyberbullied in an online forum “that appeared to target female emergency workers” according to the Huffington Post. She ended her life with a suicide note.
“Commenters went after multiple women believed to be Fairfax County employees and volunteers, making claims about their promiscuity, sharing their photos, and judging their attractiveness,” said Reporter Nina Golgowski. “In one case, a woman’s selection for a paramedic program is credited to the guys she regularly sleeps with, including her chief.”
“What is not clear is how long the fire department knew of the posts and how they were handled, if at all,” she added. Law enforcement can find out the identities of anonymous posters.
Annette Prada, a New Mexico government worker whose managers avoided dealing with workplace bullying as much as possible
At the New Mexico state agency the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) in the Corporations bureau, Annette Prada dealt with both verbal and written abuse, including demotions, in the last five years of her 23 years at the PRC according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Annette’s daughter reported that her mother was “only two years away from retirement. She tried to stay strong” but had health problems. The trouble with waiting even one year is that severe stress shortens lives.
Annette’s best friend from work, Mercie Roybal, who worked at the PRC for 33 years, confirmed that Prada complained she had been bullied at work. Former staff told The New Mexican reporter Staci Matlock that “they claimed in letters and in lawsuits that the PRC has a pattern of harassment and bullying,” said WBI.
Johnny Montoya, PRC Chief of Staff, was unaware of Prada’s complaints from Prada. “Montoya is the operational chief of the agency with responsibility for all divisions. He counts on division chiefs handling issues. If he legitimately never heard of complaints from Prada, it is either because they never bubbled up to his level, squelched by in the Corporations division by that boss. Or it could be that Prada never formally complained. Clearly she was close to her retirement goal, at age 50, and worried that a complaint would bring certain retaliation, threatening her path to a pension,” explained WBI.
“Montoya’s case-by-case resolution strategy allows the PRC to play favorites. For some cases, serious investigations ensue. In those cases, the alleged perpetrators are not part of the inner circle and they are dispensable,” said WBI. “For insiders, a different set of rules exist. It matters little what policies say. There is sufficient ambiguity to allow Montoya to make exceptions for high-ranking managers and personal friends. Always be wary when you hear management claim the right to be flexible using the case-by-case excuse.”
“Stacy Marie Starr-Garcia, Corporations Bureau Chief, would not even comment. Prada worked in her unit. With five years of bullying, she either is the perpetrator or knew who was. She is guilty of either direct aggression or reckless indifference for enabling it under her watch. Her silence speaks volumes,” added WBI.
PRC Deputy Chief of Staff for Legal Affairs and Attorney, Bob Parker, told Matlock that “he doesn’t believe there is a pattern of employee bullying at the agency. His job is to villify those who dare complain about mistreatment by the state. There is no pattern to him because no complaint is legitimate. All complainants are to be disparaged, discouraged, and banished — that’s his job,” explained WBI.
Marlene Braun, a highly ethical employee prevented from doing her job by an unethical boss
Workplace bullying target Marlene Braun ended her life on May 2, 2005 in California after her claims of torment from her boss Ron Huntsinger.
Days before he left office in 2001, President Clinton proclaimed the greatest concentration of endangered wildlife in all of California, the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain, a national monument. Braun became the first Carrizo Plain National Monument Manager, hired to develop a highly controversial “resource management plan that would put for the first time the health of native species ahead of cattle grazing interests at the Carrizo” mandated by the Secretary of the Interior, according to reporter John Peabody in the San Luis Obispo New Times article “To Die on the Plain.”
“The plan, though, would never see the light of day. Braun’s supervisor, Ron Fellows, retired, and that’s when things took a drastic shift at the Carrizo. From March 2004, when Ron Huntsinger took over as field manger, until Braun’s death on May 2, 2005, the draft would be revised at least four times, and the Carrizo Plain managing partners would start to lose faith in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s management of the Carrizo. Huntsinger blamed Braun, but Braun retained her support from the plain’s managing partners,” explained Peabody.
Braun said that under Huntsinger, she felt intimidated, humiliated, and abused, all while she was able to keep cattle off the land. “Some suspect that Huntsinger was hired to ‘fix’ the resource management plan, that as it stood it was not friendly enough to grazing interests,” said Peabody. “This shift in planning has caused many to speculate that someone higher up in Washington was turning the screws on California’s BLM, and that Huntsinger was assigned to drive Braun from her post.”
“Marlene had strong principles, was a hard worker, and believed in fairness. She caught and pointed out his mistakes. Until her new boss came, she never had a black mark on her record. Therein lies the paradox: contrary to stereotypes, it is not the weak who are bullied; it is the strong,” said close friend Kathy Hermes, who would later become the Connecticut Healthy Workplace Bill coordinator. Others commented on how passionate Braun was about the Carrizo Plain.”Braun was straightforward and expected the same from others,” Hermes added.
A month after Huntsinger began, he began removing responsibilities from Braun and hired on a lead for the plan, excluding Braun from meeting, never documenting why she was not doing a good job, and re-writing already reviewed parts of the plan.
Soon after, Braun told managing partners over a conference call that she suspected changing national politics influenced looser rules over cattle grazing. Huntsinger yelled at Braun for “leaking” internal information and would not let Braun defend herself. Braun felt demoralized. Huntsinger repeatedly ignored Braun’s emails after that episode and refused to consider changing anything he did. Eventually, after Braun accidentally cc’d Huntsinger on an email saying he misinterpreted grazing regulations, Huntsinger banned Braun from speaking with the managing partners altogether and then gave her a five-day suspension, skipping a written complaint in the progressive discipline process despite the suspension being reserved for egregious offenses. After Huntsinger said he would never help her get a transfer to another area, Braun felt like Huntsinger was trying to ruin her career.
Ultimately, Braun resigned herself to the situation. “Braun became withdrawn and anxious. She saw doctors who prescribed her antidepressants, but the medicine didn’t help.” said Peabody. Within a year of Huntslinger manipulating Braun through abusive tactics, Braun took her own life.
Jodie Zebell, a model employee tormented after receiving accolades and a promotion
Jodie Zebell ended her life on February 3, 2008 at the age of 31, the day before she was to receive a poor job review. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, married with two young children, and a part-time mammographer at a clinic, Zebell was historically praised as a model employee. However, coworkers unfairly blamed her for problems at work and intensified their bullying after Zebell was promoted. After Zebell had a run-in with her supervisor, the supervisor joined in the harassment, “filling Zebell’s personnel file with baseless complaints about her performance and loudly criticizing her in front of others.” The harassment continued for months until Zebell’s suicide.
Kevin Morrissey, whose complaints fell on deaf ears after bullying by an alleged narcissist
Kevin Morrissey took his life on July 30, 2010. The 52-year-old managing editor of the award-winning Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR)at the University of Virginia suffered from depression, a result of bullying from his boss, Ted Genoways, and the university’s failure to respond to repeated complaints about the bullying, including 18 calls to campus offices in the two weeks leading up to his death.
Other employees complained about bullying from Genoways, but the university did nothing to protect them. Genoways denied the bullying allegations and even dismissed Morrissey as “prickly,” blaming Morrissey’s darkened mood in the months leading to his death as the reason for their strained relationship rather than understanding his role in the darkened mood.
Genoways even went on to say that Morrissey “felt less important to me professionally as our staff grew…. As Kevin struggled through these issues, particularly in the last year, his work suffered and his demeanor, to my mind, was often unacceptable for the workplace. We feuded over this often, and the majority of the VQR staff sided with Kevin.” Genoways chalked up their conflict to Morrissey’s history of disagreeing with bosses and admitted that their conflicts fed Morrissey’s depression instead of taking accountability for possibly causing the depression in the first place. After an argument with Morrissey and another employee, Genoways banished the two from the office for a week and ordered them not to communicate with colleagues. Coworkers often heard Genoways yelling at Morrissey behind closed doors and openly dismissing Morrissey. Morrissey reportedly marked the pages of the book Working with the Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job by Nina Brown. Genoways’ reactions are consistent with narcissism.
When Morrissey had repeat meetings with human resources, the ombudsman, and the president, telling them that working conditions were untenable, they chalked it up to “working with creative people is sometimes difficult.”
“He was anxious about his job,” said Morrissey’s sister. “He doesn’t know why he’s in trouble. He’s got a condo that he’s got a mortgage for. He got a new car that he’s got a note for. He doesn’t have a college degree and there aren’t a whole lot of jobs for the managing editor of some literary journal. He’s looking at having to uproot his entire life if he doesn’t get help. He found himself utterly trapped.”
Share your stories
If you know of an employee who died from suicide from workplace bullying, email email@example.com.
Change the rules
If you live in Massachusetts, write to your legislators and demand that employers be held accountable for workplace bullying through legislation.
If you live outside Massachusetts, find out how to help end workplace bullying in your state.
A 2012 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) poll reveals these top ten reasons as to why bullying in the workplace happens, according to targets and witnesses:
- Bullies are not punished and thrive.
- Laws to stop it are either absent or too weak to be useful.
- No one in the organization has the will to stop it.
- Coworkers stand idly by and fail to stop it.
- The workplace culture rewards cutthroat behaviors.
- A few hyper-aggressive individuals have psychological and social problems.
- Executives/owners/senior managers are the bullies.
- Bullying is part of the larger society and culture.
- Bullies follow orders from the top.
- No one in the organization has the power to stop it.
The top reasons dissected
- The top of the top reasons are employer-focused. Employers set the culture for the work environment top-down. Without consequences for bullies and the will to stop bullying, bullies thrive. And without strong laws, employers won’t bother to hold bullies accountable because they simply don’t have to.
- Bystanders are next on lacking accountability. We wouldn’t need laws if bystanders didn’t stand idly by and do nothing. Coworkers fear for their own survival. Unfortunately, that fear is at the expense of targets’ suffering.
- Too many workplaces, and culture in general, reward aggressive behavior. Promotion and even inaction rewards aggressive behavior. When bullies put themselves in toxic work cultures, they thrive.
- Bullies’ flawed personalities matte. Bullies are often bordering on psychopath. They’re often narcissists who lack empathy and who willfully exploit and harm others when the opportunity arises.
It’s important to note that not a single top ten reason points to a workplace bullying target as the reason for the abusive mistreatment. Though we live in a culture that likes to blame the victim rather than hold perpetrators accountable, workplace bullying targets know they’re not the problem.
Hope for the future
Another 2012 WBI poll showed hope for our workplaces. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said that workplace bullying will stop when laws make employers end it or when employers see how expensive or immoral preventable bullying is.
So you have a reputation of being a go-to person at work. One who gets things done and gets them done well. One who wants your organization to be great.
But suddenly you look around, and it’s the selfish, incompetent ones clawing their way to the top while you’re stuck reporting to them, making less money than them, and getting bullied by them.
So what’s the deal? How did this illogical power structure become so common?
- They’re great at maneuvering. They kiss up and kick down, so those who promote them either don’t see the damage they cause or don’t care about the damage they cause, but everyone else does.
- They’re entitled. When bullies simply take power and feel entitled to dictate, belittle, control, or manipulate targets by calling them “sensitive” or “emotional,” and others believe the dismissal of the targets rather than hold the bullies accountable, bullies get ahead. But it’s not just about believing bullies. It’s about seeing sensitivity as negative rather than human or that the bullies are insensitive, regardless of how their targets react.
- Incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people underrate others. The phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to Wikipedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average…. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” The result: the competent workers believe they’re average, while the incompetent workers believe they’re above average, and everyone believes both viewpoints, often positioning the incompetent workers at the top.
- Their bosses are the same way. Workplace cultures start at the top. If those at the top don’t tolerate bullying, it won’t happen. But when those at the top are bullies, they tend to hire other incompetent kiss ups who validate their own behaviors of getting by on ego rather than merit.
The good news: we don’t have to resign ourselves to the way so many workplaces run. We can educate others on these patterns so there’s a collective awareness of them and we begin to see them as negative and unacceptable.