There are many instances when art is used to imitate the ebbs and flows, ups and downs, beauty and nastiness of life. The movie, Horrible Bosses, is one of those instances. This black comedy chronicles three male employees with downright horrible bosses. One works for a female who sexually harasses and blackmails him while the other two have male bosses who bully, undermine and disrespect them. It gets to the point where these three employees believe their only way out is to kill their bosses. Quite a sad satire isn’t it? I must say I found it quite entertaining, at first. Sometime later I stopped to consider how much of what was portrayed might be a reality in some workplaces. It was surprising to find that it hits home more frequently than it should.
In Canada today, bullying in the workplace, particularly from bosses and managers, is being dubbed: a silent epidemic. According to a 2014 CBC report on bullying in the workplace, one in six people are affected. This striking statistic becomes even more poignant with the revelation by Canada Safety Council that more than 80% of bullies are bosses.
A 2012 Globe and Mail article entitled “Is your boss tough, or just a bully?” outlined that recent legislative changes have attempted to put a face on workplace bullying and harassment. One province defines harassment as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known as unwelcome.” The article went on to outline that in Quebec, the first province to legislate a prohibition on “psychological harassment” at work, the Labour Standards Tribunal listed some examples of bullying as rude, degrading or offensive remarks, spreading rumours, ridicule, shouting abuse, belittling employees, ignoring them or making fun of their personal choices.
Thousands of harassment complaints are made to human rights tribunals each year. While many people may get justice through this medium and through provincial courts, there are those who decide to stay and get even. Yes, just like the movie, horrible bosses spawn horrible employees.
Positive psychology coach and author, Dr. Craig Dowden revealed that half the workers in North America have witnessed some form of instability in their workplace. Addressing the audience at the 2014 Your Workplace Conference, he defined instability as the exchange of seemingly inconsequential and inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms and workplace conduct.
“What’s critical for me is the inconsequentiality that’s highlighted. Some people many perceive these actions as being really minor, or say ‘this doesn’t really matter’, and ‘why is this person getting upset about this’, says Dowden. The number of instability cases in workplaces had doubled in the past seven years, he added. “Every day we are observing disrespect.”
The audience was eager to share the forms of instability or disrespect they had witnessed in their work environments, including:
- Intolerance to different races and cultures
- Intolerance to different ideas
- Eye-rolling and other off-putting body language
- Withholding information
- Social exclusion
On the point of withholding information, Dowden pointed out that research on narcissistic leaders shows that they love to hoard information as they believe knowledge is power. He went on to indicate these examples as indicators of disrespect and instability in the workplace:
- Taking credit for the work of others
- Not saying please or thank you
- Failure to return phone calls
- Checking emails during meetings and conferences
- Talking over someone
Some people believe that disrespect or bullying in the workplace is not their problem, and that those on the receiving end should toughen up. They are wrong. At some point, an astounding 94% of people who feel they have been disrespected at work decide to get even. While employees may not go as far as the Horrible Bosses plot line and devise ways to kill their bosses, their reactions can still be harmful.
Getting even can include deliberately decreasing the level of work and creativity, and avoiding relaying critical messages, for example. Also, employees do not differentiate the organization from the person who disrespected them and set out to sabotage the organization as they hold it accountable. “Essentially there is no separation between individual and organization, and when people say, ‘oh that’s just John being John or Sally, that just the way she is’, this is a reflection of our organizations, our poor values and what we put up with,” says Dowden. Only 12% of people in such situations leave the job.
There is a tremendous cost to the organization. Dowden explains that severe emotional damage causing depression, and increase in disability claims and productivity challenges were among the top results of instability in the work environment. “Working for a toxic boss makes you significantly more likely to have a heart attack.” Dowden added that, on average, seven weeks out of each year is spent managing conflict. This carries with it a tremendous financial cost as work has to be halted and experts brought in to work through the issues.
In addition, those on the receiving end of bullying or disrespect, and those witnessing these incidents are affected in the same manner psychologically because of an empathetic connection. Quite striking, though, is that, while empathetic, people who witness bullying are significantly less likely to assist those on the receiving end, or to even assist someone in need.
In work environments where there is emotional and physical stability, employees are 20% more energetic, 30% more likely to feel motivated and excited about learning and 36% more satisfied with their jobs.
With empirical data in-hand, Dowden shares that the majority of people say they are just too busy to be nice anymore. “Working fast, sending quick texts, sending quick emails, [with no time for] even a please or thank you,” is a problem, says Dowden.
Dowden outlined these steps that organizations can use to mitigate or prevent episodes of horrible bosses and vindictive employees:
- Instead of asking for a recommendation from a former boss, ask a former employee
- Ask the candidate out to lunch to see how they deal with the staff or make them wait a while before the interview to see how they treat the administrative staff
- Utilize 360 feedback — a multi-source assessment that includes feedback from an employee’s immediate work circle. Dowden said this is a fantastic way to get a sense of how an employee is behaving
- Take corrective action and show that such behaviour is not acceptable. Do not let bullying slide because an employee is considered a top performer
- Conduct exit interviews and use the information gathered from them to build the stability of the work environment
- Keep calm and analyze data from workplace surveys. Leverage the information gathered about what is going well and what is going badly
It takes so little to be kind, respectful and polite, and the benefits should be obvious. However, if you need proof, given the financial and psychological costs, and the likelihood that employees will get even with the horrible boss and by extension the organization, it really does pay to treat others fairly and with respect from the onset.
Why not slow down a bit and think before you speak and act? After all, what organization wants to be credited as being the model for Horrible Bosses?