From Boss to Bully: When It Has Gone Too Far?

I have been bullied, you may have been bullied. We all know who they are, but do we know how to deal with them?

Joe was a very good egg. He was the most knowledgeable and reliable of the managers and was the "go-to" person for all of the workplace history. A new director with a reputation for behaving badly was hired and he wanted to clean house as soon as he arrived. "Out with the old, in with the new" was his motto. He would say " I don't care about the way we used to do it. We need to change everything." What he meant was he didn't want any old corporate bones in the bone yard.

The new boss started riding Joe's every move; he berated and insulted him, created assignments with unrealistic expectations and goals, and even threw things across the room in an angry rage. Joe became fearful, agitated, and unable to concentrate. He felt frozen and unable to get his work done. Joe's co-workers became concerned about his health and recommended that he get some help.

"The boss wants me to leave. What am I going to do?" he thought on the way to his doctor's appointment. He got some blood pressure medicine and was off work for a few days to re-group. The boss called him constantly asking for updates of his assignments, yelling at him, criticizing his progress. Joe went to sleep that night and never woke up again.

Of course, this is an extreme and tragic story but unfortunately, it is true. Common threads surface about workplace bullying in the recent suicide at the University of Virginia. Managing editor Kevin Morrissey committed suicide following many cries for help and allegations of workplace bullying. These are allegations, not absolute proof of a bully driving someone to end his life. He had, however, left many indications about his risk for suicide before he took his life. In this case, Morrissey killed himself on the university campus, a clear last message to the University.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is defined as:

Repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:
• Verbal abuse
• Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
• Work interference -- sabotage -- which prevents work from getting done

How often is there a bully in the midst? According to the 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute's national scientific survey, 37 percent of adult Americans have reported being bullied at work. This daunting figure doesn't include employees who are considered collateral damage. The bully can be a man or woman and is likely to be a boss.

If bullying is a result of our legal statutory rights, then our anti-discrimination laws apply and legal action is possible. It has been estimated that only 20 percent of bullying cases fall into this category. But at this time, there is no law against the bullying behavior in the United States. Refer to The Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) for a legislative campaign that encourages states to pass legislation to address workplace bullying issues. In this case, the HWB has not been introduced in the State of Virginia.

When workplace issues create an emptiness and hopelessness for resolution, common trends surface when people are in dire need for assistance or potential intervention The employee cries for help. This cry often goes out to colleagues who they ask for collaboration.

• They often do not suffer in silence. As in the Morrissey case, the employee discussed his plight with colleagues and contacted authorities at the employer, actually at least 18 times.
• The employee feels there are no alternatives, no way out of the employment situation. Particularly in our difficult job market, employees need to remain in their jobs because of limited alternatives. They feel hopeless.
• The employee is in a constant feeling of anxiety and experiences a sense of doom, scared that negative things are to come.

What should administrators and Human Resource professionals do to assist people like Kevin Morrissey, who are crying for help?

  1. First and foremost, distressed employees need an avenue to discuss the allegations and realize that they have been heard. Most importantly, a distressed employee needs the opportunity to vent in quick order. Project an environment of calmness and provide assurance that is it okay to vent.

  • Have an employee assistance program at your fingertips. Either have expert, trained, and credentialed specialists on staff to provide help to employees in distress or pursue a contracted service where you can refer employees. Remember, we can give attention to staff, assure them that they are being heard, but when it comes to clinical issues, refer them to the right people for assistance. This assistance can take on the form of referrals for medical assistance and monitoring of their progress.
  • Ask the complainant specific questions that will help you to make your conclusions about the complaint and the course of action to correct the problem. Remember, you need clear facts and evidence to move forward with any resulting disciplinary action.In most cases, there is another story and you need to know what that is.
  • Don't assume that administrators or human resource professionals have the skills to handle these serious types of allegations and investigations. Contract a skilled professional to provide training and practice so they will be well prepared when the needs arise.
  • Communicate to all employees the expectation to comply with the values of the organization. Make it everyone's responsibility to keep your workplace free from bullying and harassing behaviors.


    If you have been personally bullied at work, this information rings all too clear. I liken the bully to a management terrorist. Bullies shake your very core and keep you worrying about the next strike. You appreciate the moments between episodes and fear for your next attack. You look around for who may be watching your embarrassment. Bullying is often contagious and the perpetrators do like an audience.

    • Address the issue "head-on". Shed light on the issue to make the bully cognizant of your troubles
    • Take the issue up the corporate chain.
    • Show your tenacity and keep the story alive.
    • Don't forget this if your career they are messing with. What do you have to lose?

    About Wendy N. Powell
    With more than 25 years of human resource and management consulting experience, WENDY N. POWELL has spent most of her career advising managers at the University of Michigan as well as many public and private sector organizations. She is currently on the business faculty at both Palm Beach State College and the University of Phoenix. A member of the Society for Human Resource Management, she received a leadership award in 2002 from the Midwest College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. For more information, please visit: