Bullied at Work

Are you too nice to get promoted?

For the Boston Globe.

boston-globe-logo1Do nice guys finish last at work, too? A new study says they do. After surveying white-collar workers in Britain, University of Sheffield researcher Nikos Bozionelos found that those with the most agreeable personalities were less likely to be promoted. In fact, Bozionelos found that being conscientious and pleasant might do your career more harm than good.

East Boston resident Jennifer Pozark’s experience seems to support his claims. The jewelry designer still shudders when she recalls the two years she spent working at a nationally franchised frame shop. Though she hadn’t been properly trained, she says, her two superiors seemed to hold it against her when she asked questions.

“There was a situation where we worked with a chemical that was potentially dangerous,” says Pozark, 34, who now runs a business called Metaluna Jewelry. “I was asking, `Is it dangerous if I breathe it? If I touch it?’ and he said something sarcastic like, `Oh, it will probably kill you.’ I was like, I’m asking a valid question here. Just give me an answer.’ ”

Pozark reported to two different bosses, and she says they almost made a game of picking on her. “They would make snide comments, they would criticize me in front of customers,” she recalls. “The [store] manager was letting them get away with it, so nobody was willing to put a stop to it. It was like when your siblings are mean to you, and then the parent comes in and they’re like, `I wasn’t doing anything.’ We would have meetings and they would say, `Everything’s fine,’ and then the next day they would blow up at me again.”

Some may say Pozark simply found herself in a demanding environment.  But she believes she endured workplace bullying, cruel and pointless harassment that’s often directed at the nicest, hardest- working members of an organization, a phenomenon that’s garnering increased attention from human resources specialists in the United States and Europe.

If you feel you’re being bullied, what can you do about it?

The question of just what constitutes bullying perplexes State Representative Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat. She first learned of the issue when a concerned citizen, Milford resident Paul Piwko, approached her for help in getting an antibullying measure on her district’s ballot.

Piwko, an unemployed teacher, says he had been bullied in the workplace
and wanted to raise awareness about the issue.

“Workplace bullying is a real issue and can cause pain and misery for the people involved and for their families,” Story says. “One person’s bullying is not another person’s. The definition will be difficult, but I think that if that can be conquered, this could be a very useful effort.”

Despite being widely acknowledged in Europe and Canada, the issue remains largely ignored in the United States. According to Gary Namie, author of “The Bully At Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Dignity On The Job” (Sourcebooks, 2000), that’s because American culture celebrates forcefulness and even aggression at work and elsewhere.

“We reward aggression and hyper-aggression,” Namie says. “On election night I was in Toronto, and the Canadian press was saying, `The Americans have validated that they like the cowboy image and the bully on the [world] stage.’ That seems to be what’s going on in American business [also].”

Namie is the founder, along with his wife, Ruth, of the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.

The Namies define bullying as “the repeated, health-endangering mistreatment of a person by a cruel perpetrator.” “It interferes with an employee’s work production and the employer’s business interest.”

That’s the pattern Pozark describes. “I was getting good performance reviews, and they told me I could get a promotion, but when I finally pushed for that, they told me they didn’t think I was qualified and [brought up] all this stuff I’d never been made aware of,” she says.

While criticisms like these are sometimes justified, Namie says people targeted for bullying are usually conscientious, helpful employees. The Namies surveyed visitors to their website in 2003 and 2000, and they found that victims tend to be highly skilled at their jobs and very self-directed. Namie says it’s these very qualities that make people targets.

It’s no wonder, then, that bullying incidents are frequently reported by members of “helper” professions such as nursing, teaching and counseling. Namie says he hears frequent complaints about the practice from people who work in domestic violence shelters.

Evelyn Bain, the health and safety program coordinator for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, says nurses are frequent targets. “Bullying occurs in medical schools and hospitals specifically the operating room and the emergency room. There are rampant stories of surgeons who will throw instruments, have fits and scream and holler,” she says.

The link between harassment and the helping professions reinforces Bozionelos’ findings about personality and career success. Bozionelos’ study, which appeared in the September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, found that people who were agreeable, conscientious and extroverted tended to suffer for it in their careers. He suggests it’s because such people don’t put their own needs first.

“Agreeable people tend to self-sacrifice and compromise their own interests in order to [make] other people happy,” he says. “They might tend to do activities just to please others, activities that don’t do much for their careers. [They’ll] be given the task that nobody else wants, the low-profile task.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Namie advises people who are “too nice” to cultivate assertiveness. “Nice gets you in trouble. Nice gets you exploited,” he says. “What all [victims of bullying] share is that they’re nonconfrontive. When aggression finds them, they don’t respond in kind. Unless you slap down aggression with aggression, you get exploited.”

Unfortunately, fighting back usually has to occur in the context of office politics. There aren’t many legal protections for those who suffer from bullying.

That’s why Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada has been promoting his “healthy workplace bill” around the country. He’s gotten it introduced in California, Oklahoma and Oregon. “A bullied employee does not have a direct legal claim against an employer for workplace bullying,” says Yamada, who authored the first comprehensive analysis of the legal implications of workplace bullying in the Georgetown Law Journal in 2000.

“If they are incapacitated psychologically by the treatment, they may be able to make a workers’ compensation claim. But workers’ comp claims for emotional and psychological harm are very hard to prevail on. Unless you can show that the behavior is somehow grounded in discrimination, it’s very hard to find a legal hook to hang a claim on, he says.”

For those who feel they are bullied, Yamada suggests trying Namie’s method: Push back.

“At times, standing up to the bully can make a difference, in that classic schoolyard sense that some people will push others around until they’re stood up to, and then they’ll back off,” he says. “But that doesn’t happen all the time. If you’ve got somebody who’s just hellbent on trying to harass or bully someone, and they have an institutional power advantage, the self-help may not be all that helpful.”

Another approach is to take your problem to human resources. While they may not do much to intervene, you’ll at least plant a seed to help improve the work environment for others down the line. “Not only is it good business to take care of the morale of the workplace, it’s good business to take care of the bottom line,” Namie says. “Bullies are very costly. They’re too expensive to keep.”

-Etelka Lehoczky, 2004