The Wrong Stuff

Is a poor economy to blame for workplace bullies and toxic bosses? No, but a business culture that celebrates aggression and toughness might be.


When I worked in television, standard procedure required that all films be seen in an early rough cut by the program editor. These viewings filled me with dread. Not only was I revealing my carefully nurtured work to the outside world for the first time; I also happened to work for a screamer. Tim almost never liked the first cut of anything, and his displeasure took the form of tantrums: yelling, screaming, throwing phones against the wall, occasionally dragging in other producers to see what a miserable piece of dumb garbage I’d wasted his budget on. The only (very slight) compensation was knowing that he treated everyone this way.


Tim was a toxic boss. I’d been working in broadcasting for five years, and I’d never seen behavior like this before. So I thought Tim was unusual. But he wasn’t — and he isn’t. In the years since, I’ve heard countless tales of bosses who rant and rave, give their employees the silent treatment, ignore them, mock them, glare at them, insult and belittle them in front of others, spread false rumors about them, withhold the information they need to do their work — and take credit for everything they’ve done. Employees working in these conditions often find their physical health, mental health, and confidence so destroyed that they lack even the confidence to leave and instead find themselves trapped in a world of psychological violence.

In talking to people about their work, it has been so hard to find people without at least one such experience that it’s made me wonder how systemic bullying is in our business environment. The lowest estimate says that 12% of workers are bullied; others put it as high as 50%. Women are as likely as men to be toxic bosses — but women are 80% more likely to be the targets. Men pick on women — and women pick on women. The abused are neither young nor thin skinned but tend to be in their 40s, with years of experience behind them. And toxic bosses don’t work alone — 77% of them enlist others to help. So widespread is this phenomenon that lawyers seeking some legal remedy have found that in many cases, people see abuse and stress as simply intrinsic to employment.”

Is a poor economy to blame? High unemployment combined with an increasing dependence on temporary and contingent labor means that companies have more vulnerable employees to pick on. But while the economic slump may exacerbate bullying, it doesn’t explain why it is so deeply embedded in our workplace culture. Jane Jarman walked away from her bully boss last month; she doesn’t think the economy’s to blame either. She thinks that, as the rewards for enduring abuse dwindle, we are just getting more sensitive to how toxic our cultures really are. “I think the economy has merely lowered the water level enough so that the rocks in the bottom of the pond are visible,” she says.

A business culture that celebrates aggression, toughness, endurance, and the ability to endure pain, as our does, runs dangerously close to endorsing bully bosses. As long as we perpetuate the myth that business is not emotional, we fail to develop the language we need to deal with the emotion which business will always engender. Moreover, our tradition of keeping our work lives and our private lives severely compartmentalized makes it feasible for people to behave at work in ways they would never dream of behaving at home. Tim’s wife and I were college friends, and I knew that he never behaved like that at home.

If bullying is indeed systemic to our business culture, it will be hard to change. David Yamada is a lawyer who thinks the only way to root it out is to make it illegal. He introduced workplace abuse legislation in California where it was vigorously opposed by the Chambers of Commerce — but he won’t stop trying. “The spiral people experience is horrible,” he says. “I have seen people go from A to Z, and by the time they leave, they are just picking up pieces of themselves. They have to rebuild themselves completely.” In England, where lawsuits against bullies have succeeded, it is estimated that workplace abuse costs the U.K. $50 billion a year in lost productivity, illness and compensation. “The failure of organizations to understand the costs of bullying is really to their detriment,” Yamada says. “You have battered, dysfunctional work environments — but with no threat of litigation, most managers just label it as a personality conflict and have no protocol to handle it.”


So employees are left alone to figure it out. I realize now that I could deal with Tim because my father was a bully. I learned, literally at my father’s knee, how to deal with people like this, and it’s been some of the best management training I ever had. That I’ve been able to deal with abuse, however, doesn’t make me comfortable with its persistence. I reject the idea that a working life should be nasty, brutal and long. Despite experiencing some hideous cultures, I persist in my view that work can and should be ennobling, that it can and should enable us to express our highest abilities and values. And every time I encounter a toxic culture, I feel that vision profoundly betrayed, to everyone’s cost.

I eventually left Tim’s show and went to work elsewhere. But like so many of his ilk, Tim rose and rose. His meteoric career showed me that however much management may say “our people are our greatest asset” they don’t mean it enough to get rid of people like this. If David Yamada has his way, one day they may have to. But before he can succeed, we all need to start identifying bullies for what they are — not tough leaders but abusers of the highest ideals of work.

What to do if you are being bullied

  • Recognize what is happening.
  • Tell someone so you can hear yourself describe what is happening to you — and so you can get some visibility onto the bad behavior. And keep a journal: write down everything that happens so you know you aren’t losing your mind and you have the facts when you need them.
  • Try to figure out whether you are in a toxic culture or just working for a toxic boss Good cultures squeeze out bullies; you may be able to outlast yours. But toxic cultures will destroy you. Leave while you still can. If you don’t reject bullying, you start believing you aren’t worthy of better treatment.
  • Keep a copy of any bullying emails, notes, and letters.
  • Tell friends and family so you get support.

Additional Resources

Margaret Heffernan is former CEO of ZineZone Corp. and iCAST Corp. Additional information about Heffernan — as well as additional Culture Club columns — are available in Online Insights.