Bullies Are Among The Most Well Liked And Hated At Work

As a longtime hotel manager for upscale resorts across the U.S., Sandrine had spent her career believing that good service was the key to success. That included being courteous to your guests—and to your co-workers. Which is why the company’s latest “star” employee, Russ, confounded her. He’d been hired as a bellman at the Northeast beach resort she was currently assigned to and in less than a year had worked his way up to associate manager, earning a promotion (and, she knew, a healthy raise) above her. She’d been with the company for nearly 10 years.

She could understand if he was an exceptionally hard worker, or a talented manager. But, she told me, Russ was verbally abusive to his staff, using fear and intimidation to get them to do what he wanted them to do, and to do it better and more quickly than any other department. He denied vacation requests and spread rumors about staffers who got on his bad side. Once, she’d witnessed him make fun of a hostess, in front of a dozen other employees, for a pimple she’d tried, not very successfully, to cover.

But when the hotel executives came to town, Russ played Mr. Popular amazingly well. “He was charming and believably personable, even if 20 minutes earlier he had been berating the chef,” she told me, frustrated by her own inability to climb the ranks as well as Russ had. The higher ups regarded Russ’s department as one of the most efficiently run—and it was, given his reports were scared to get on his bad side—and he was happy to accept all the credit for it. As far as the bosses could tell, people seemed to like him. “I always operated by the idea that he’d get what he deserved—people like that always do, don’t they?—but all he seemed to get was rewarded,” Sandrine said.

Workplace bullying is on the rise: A 2010 survey of more than 4000 American workers released by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of employees had been bullied in the workplace—defined as having experienced verbal abuse, job sabotage, misuse of authority, intimidation and humiliation, and deliberate destroying of relationships. Such behavior was both repeated and harmful to health. As a result of this study and others, many workplaces have launched anti-bullying initiatives, and many states are lobbying for anti-bullying legislation (although bullying is four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job, it is not yet illegal).

And yet a new study out of the State University of New York, Buffalo, and published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that workplace bullies are often rewarded. Despite organizational efforts to curtail bullying, the researchers found, many bullies receive positive evaluations from their supervisors and achieve high levels of career success. And they do so much in the way Sandrine reported Russ had: by charming supervisors and manipulating others to help them get ahead. The study found that because many bullies can possess high levels of social ability and political savvy, they’re able to strategically abuse co-workers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisors. Bullies, it would seem, are among the most well liked and hated people at work.

Mark, a graphic designer at a small Chicago advertising agency, often overheard his female boss, a highly praised and respected executive with a long and decorated history within the industry, relentlessly ripping into his female colleagues. Oftentimes, he wondered if she should do something, but what? And at what cost? “I certainly didn’t want to get into the line of fire,” Mark told me. “I really needed the job. And so I just sat back and hoped that someone else would deal with her—and that she didn’t come after me next.”

This is another possible reason bullies are getting ahead: According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 50 percent of workers don’t report bullying they see or experience. Instead, many workers practice conflict avoidance, reasoning that an angered bully is a more dangerous bully and that staying out of the way is the best way to personal survival. Of course, Mark could have responded another way entirely: According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, workplace bullying can be contagious. Bullying behavior (especially if such behavior seems to be rewarded) can encourage non-bullies, or victims, to take up abusive behavior themselves. In this way, the act of bullying by one individual can impact an entire company by fostering behavior that trickles down the entire organizational ladder.

Eventually, Sandrine asked for a transfer to a different hotel. A year later, Russ was promoted to regional manager, and Sandrine was one of his reports. “I should have taken action when I had the chance, and encouraged others to do the same,” she told me. “In one sense, I figured he’d devise his own end. I thought there was no way his behavior could be rewarded. I was wrong.”

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