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Lynne Curry: What if the boss is the office bully?

Lynne Curry

Q. Is there any hope for those of us who work for a long-term bully? Mr. Bully runs our branch office and, one by one, he's gotten rid of anyone who takes him on or questions his dictatorship. But because our office employs many talented, productive employees, we produce great results and the corporate headquarters thinks he walks on water.

I didn't realize how bad the situation was until I was promoted onto the management team. Before, I'd been shielded by a manager who liked employees to use their minds and voice their opinions, even ones contrary to her thinking. Needless to say, she was tremendously popular with employees and the Bully used the results she and we achieved to strengthen his credibility with corporate.

Then, they tangled and he tossed her out. Before you tell me not to jump to conclusions and to realize there are two sides to every dispute, please understand I saw their disagreement. I watched his mouth tighten, his nostrils flare and his eyes blaze with anger. That was just before lunch and when I returned at 1 p.m., she was gone. In my first management meeting, I watched him scream at one of my peers.

After she left, I called her. She warned me to keep my head low and said that making a fuss was pushing a boulder up a mountain and I'd get flattened.

I don't want to keep my head low. Is there anything I can do for my unfairly axed former manager or for those of us left behind?

A. You need to convince your corporate office to look into the situation or handle the matter yourself.

You can write an anonymous letter to either your corporate office's Human Resources Director or your company's Board of Directors outlining how Mr. Bully acts and the negative consequences you've watched over the last year.

While this option includes low risk, it offers low gain -- few senior managers read anonymous letters. "Unless the letter contains evidence," says attorney turned HR consultant Rick Birdsall, "you come across as a disgruntled whiner."

You could write your corporate HR department and sign the letter, attaching Smartphone recordings of Mr. Bully's tirades and a list of the individuals he's run off in the last year -- and sign the letter. This makes it likely your letter will be read and Birdsall states "A.S. 42.20.310 allows recording with the consent of a single party to the conversation -- that's you." Your letter may be read; it may also wind up in your bully's hands.

You could Link In to several individuals in the corporate office and develop a professional relationship with them. Once you've developed a strong relationship with any one of them and proved you're professional and resourceful, you could call this individual and ask for guidance and an assurance of confidentiality. Again, you may be heard, however, you'll need to prove both how Mr. Bully acts and that the negative consequences outweigh his productive strengths.

If you can document a pattern in which Mr. Bully targets individuals of a protected class such as age, sex, race, national origin or disability, you can file a complaint with the Alaska Human Rights Commission. By reaching out to a regulatory agency on behalf of a protected class, particularly if you're a member of that class, you pull in external scrutiny while securing protection from retaliation.

If you're brave and willing to be out the door within the hour, you can have a meeting with Mr. Bully and see if he's willing to make changes. Many bullies cover feelings of personal inadequacy with Darth Vader aggression. Says executive coach Scott Stender "sometimes being honest and upfront is what's most needed and effective. If that's too risky or has been tried by others, a professional 360 would both isolate and pinpoint a strategic approach for managing the unwanted behavior." You might be able to sell this approach to Mr. Bully or corporate HR without disclosing your motives.

You can also resign before you and Mr. Bully wind up at war, or go undercover. Whatever action you choose, act quickly. Most bullies have radar for those not willing to be cowed and either avoid them or take them on.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management- employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE