Office Bullying: Designers Are The Biggest Targets

As in the schoolyard, some children just do not play well with others. Some children are liars and some are tattle-tales. Some children just make up for having small penises with office power plays. That goes for some women I know, too!

Human resources or employee relations in any firm, large or small just wants the status quo and ignores what will rock the boat and injure only internal organs with no outward signs of beatings and that emotional scars can be given a mental bandage later on. Creatives are usually the targets, just as we were in the schoolyard. The bullies grew up and became marketing executives and salespeople and while they also grew fat and bald, they never lost the edge of insecurities that made them lash out at others to compensate for old drunken Uncle Touchy making them ashamed to be alive.

In all seriousness, no matter how strong you are or if you were the bully of the schoolyard, in an office situation, you are trapped by those who have titles and higher positions. More often than not, they were the ones being bullied in the schoolyard and are now taking their turns in making others suffer. There is little one can do when it comes from a manager, except post pictures of Uncle Touchy in their office, hoping they go insane. Corporate rules are very strict, as are laws in many countries. It’s too bad those laws are almost impossible to enforce.

What Do The People Who Deal With Other People And These Issues Think?

The simplest answer came from a “Brand Executive” in Malaysia;

Get a new job!

instantShift - Office Bullying

Is that how it works in Malasyia? In America that thinking leads to a cheap shotgun and ammo at Wal-Mart and a spot on the evening news.

Reacting to that statement was a Corporate Governance executive from India who said:

I think the above statement if made by HR basically says that HR is part of the problem and is a silent accomplice for the unethical behavior being done in the organization. So if the bullies are making threats, accusations, mismanaging work etc. and the senior management including HR is doing nothing, then the problem starts there and they are actually supporting destructive management practices. I think in this situation the best is to quit, because there is really no solution. The employee is going to sooner or later have a breakdown.

As for false accusations, very few would indulge in it since it would be a career-limiting move.

One should see what is the employee gaining from making the complaint, is the organizations interest being served or the employees, or whose is greater. So one should be seeing are the number of false reports high, because then the person investigating might also be involved in the crime.

Of course reporting lines should be clear, and skip level reporting should be encouraged also. This will stop the boss from giving wrong orders, because his boss will check.

Another fine comment came from a “Certified Personal and Professional Coach” from North Carolina saying:

The leader must be aware and nip this behavior in the bud. Having been in leadership roles, I found that immediate intervention and having that “hard” conversation is the key to eliminating the “power plays.”

Talk with that employee AND the manager and have THEM create a plan to stop that behavior.

All of theses questions are answered by better, clearer, stronger communication from the leader. The leader sets the organizational climate and if he/she tolerates these behaviors he/she should either be taught how to lead – or given an opportunity to succeed someplace else.

Unfortunately, this seemed in my experience with large corporations, right out of the handbook (which she apparently wrote). I believe the best HR people are the ones who answer the creeping problems that lay beneath the “plans” and having ineffective leaders “succeed someplace else.”

What Can You Do?

In my experience, it is usually the day-to-day problems that irks workers the most and they always track back to people problems. There is less stress about year-end reviews than the everyday encounters. One supervisor of mine was so abusive (but not on a regular schedule – it was like being sniped at when you least expected it) and the only mornings I didn’t dry heave before leaving my apartment was when I knew he wouldn’t be in.

01. Human Resources Protects The Company, Not You!

What I have seen is smokescreens, slight of hand and optical illusions…that are really bad. I always thought magicians were the kids who stayed in their rooms practicing magic all day while their mothers took Polaroids of them in top hats and capes and they weirded out women at bars by doing magic tricks. I guess it’s on to human relations studies from there?

I wish I could say I’ve known some good HR people. I did. They were so perfect for the principles not of what is written and pronounced to the workers as corporate policy, but to protect the corporate status quo at any cost. Any cost being you and me.

I searched for answers that weren’t scripted. So far the Malaysian executive was my closest friend for his blunt honesty.

02. The Truth Hurts

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An article in itself was relayed by the “Chief Accomplishment Officer” of a firm in Iowa:

“HR is neither human nor are they a resource.”

I use this quote rather tongue-in-cheek. In many companies today, HR does not involve itself in day-to-day employee affairs. If the situation becomes one of employee counseling or coaching, HR will find resources to assist and work with the functional manager to track progress, but often the damage is done. Unfortunately, this leaves the “target” of the attack and (often) the functional manager with the perception personified by the quote above. As with another comment, some legislation is being created to address the problem; however, it is a difficult issue to prove and to enforce. This difficulty is that bullies (at least the good ones) are very good at covering their tracks. Bullies tend to operate on two principles:

  1. Perception of power – instead of having an actual power base, bullies want their targets to perceive they have more power than they actually do. If they are successful at wielding this “power” effectively, then they succeed in perpetuating the perception; and
  2. Divide and conquer – few bullies will take on a whole group at once; rather, they pick out the “weakest of the herd” for their attack, leaving the bystanders to wonder if they are next. When a bully is “ganged up on” by a group, they invariably back down.

My approaches to dealing with these kinds of office politics power plays are as follows:

  1. Document (clearly) the roles and responsibilities of all involved. If you can answer, “who does what” that dilutes the power of the bully to assign work. This applies to projects and to day-to-day activity.
  2. Maintain documentation of all interaction with the bully. Bullies in general loathe accountability and transparency, so they attempt to do as much via face-to-face and phone call as possible to allow themselves deniability. After one of these exchanges, send an email to the bully and clarify the conversation objectively, and ask for positive or negative confirmation (in writing) within a specified time period (generally no more than 24 hours). Keep your email congenial and friendly, but still firm.
  3. Watch for patterns of behavior. When I’m speaking to audiences on office politics, I challenge them to channel their “inner Jane Goodall” – they are among the chimps day-in and day-out; hence, unless they are new to the company or the first target of the bully, they should be able to observe these behaviors. I see this a lot in my consulting business. If you see somebody else being targeted, document your own observations (including dates) as objectively as possible. If the bully turns his or her attention to you, you will have other observations on which to fall back.
  4. Power plays occur when there is no clear organizational objective that people are encouraged to pursue; so each is left to pursue individual goals. Talk to your functional manager about communicating and tracking department or organizational goals, and holding people accountable for moving toward those; doing so undermines their time and energy for pursing individual goals.
  5. Hire intelligently. Find out if people have a history of being a bully or a target, and avoid them. Work to find people who are a good cultural or organizational fit. Skills can be trained; personality and values, not so much.
  6. Handle bullying issues proactively and objectively. One of my favorite solutions comes from Bob Sutton’s book, “The No A**hole Rule” where he suggests calculating the TCA, or Total Cost of A**holes. How much is it costing the organization to have additional meetings, absenteeism, turnover, coaching and counseling, lost productivity, etc. because of their behavior? Sometimes these bullies are perceived as high performers because of their output, but when weighed against their other toxic by-products, their performance is no longer so desirable.

03. There Are Those That See Bullying As A Positive Thing.

An odd comment was one from a “Multimedia Producer and i3D Programmer for Acrobat 3D PDF, JavaFX, Mobile & Virtual Worlds” who said;

  1. It is tough to draw the line between office politics and/or competition and bullying.
  2. Bullying is a negative thing, to be sure; physical incarnations of it should be stopped.
  3. However, Office Competition, sometime fierce, can be beneficial is some environs!

I gather Wall Street and banking were two of those environs and look what happened there! Not exactly what I think either marketing or creative would want.

04. Bullying Is Against The Law In Many Nations.

instantShift - Office Bullying

Good news from the president of a Canadian “full-service human resources and organizational development consulting firm specializing in change and problem management.”

In the Province of Ontario, workplace bullying and harassment is no longer a matter of just an internal problem to be dealt with or ignored at the whim of the employer. Recent changes to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (Bill 168 became effective June 15, 2010) strengthen protections for workers from workplace violence and address workplace harassment. They define workplace violence and harassment and describe employer duties. More information on these changes can be found at

Even without these legal mandates, it is important for employers to have a plan to deal with bullying. Bullying is like root rot. Even if things look okay on the surface, it will destroy your business at the root. It is incumbent on employers to provide a clear statement of values to employers and for all of management to address behaviors that do not reflect the values of the company. Among themselves, senior management needs to reach an agreement to call one another on inappropriate behaviors.

All reported incidents should be investigated and if a complaint is found to be valid, appropriate disciplinary action should be taken. That action, of course should be proportionate to the transgression.

Indeed many nations have laws and regulations that protect the rights of workers. Many don’t or enforcing them isn’t a big priority.

There Is Always Plenty Of Talk With Good Intentions Based On Hard Figures.

An article about workplace bullying on has several great tips that have been echoed in this and the previous article on workplace issues, but it is worth a read to understand the problem isn’t just with you – it’s with everyone.

  1. You know you’re working with a bully when the bully picks out your mistakes and constantly brings them up. Or worse, the bully gossips about you, tells lies to your coworkers, and even sabotages your work. If you dread going to work, you may have a bully coworker or boss. If your employer won’t help you, and a recent study says they often won’t, these are the actions to take to defeat the bully.
  2. 45% of Americans have not experienced or witnessed bullying, but 37% have been bullied; 12% have witnessed bullying.
  3. Bosses comprise 72% of bullies.
  4. More men (60%) are bullies, but women bullies target other women (71%).
  5. 45% of people targeted by a bully experience stress-related health problems including debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, and clinical depression (39%).
  6. Most importantly, once you have set the limit in your mind, exercise your right to tell the bully to stop the behavior. You might want to rehearse these steps with a friend so that you are more comfortable responding when the bully attacks.
  7. Describe the behavior you see the bully exhibiting – don’t editorialize or offer opinions, just describe what you see. (You regularly enter my cubicle, lean over my shoulder, and read my personal correspondence on my computer screen.)
  8. Tell the bully exactly how his behavior is impacting your work. (Because much of my work is confidential, these actions make me feel as if I need to hide what I am working on from you, or change screens which is a waste of my time.)
  9. Tell the bully what behavior you will not put up with in the future. (In the future, you are not to enter my cubicle unless I invite you to come in. This is my private work space and your actions are unwelcome.)
  10. Stick with your statement and if the bully violates your space, move on to confrontation.
  11. Another article on the subject states some frightening figures in addition to the article listed above;
  12. Once targeted, a person has a 64% chance of losing the job for no reason. Despite the health harm, 40% never report it. Only 3% sue and 4% complain to state or federal agencies.

The Costs Of Workplace Bullying To Companies Are Staggering.

In an article on company costs due to this behavior, Psychologist Michael H. Harrison, Ph.D., of Harrison Psychological Associates, quotes a recent survey of 9,000 federal employees indicating that 42 percent of female and 15 percent of male employees reported being harassed within a two-year period, resulting in a cost of more than $180 million in lost time and productivity.

“This kind of harassment has a huge impact on a company’s bottom line,” he says.

Among the sources of these high costs are high absenteeism resulting from time off taken by harassed employees, reduced productivity among workers who are nursing emotional wounds and stress-related illnesses, or trying to appease or avoid their harasser.

High turnover is another economic drain. According to Namie’s studies, 82 percent of people targeted by a bully leave their workplace: 38 percent for their health; 44 percent, because they were victims of a performance appraisal system manipulated to show them as incompetent. Human resource experts peg the cost of replacing an employee at two to three times that person’s salary.

instantShift - Office Bullying

Health care costs also may rise for a company, as a bully’s targets become affected by stress-related illnesses. According to Namie, 41 percent of bully targets become depressed, with 31 percent of targeted women and 21 percent of targeted men being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The person may keep experiencing or remembering being belittled and berated and becomes fearful and phobic,” says Harrison. Medical symptoms develop based on the person’s weakest body systems — headaches and backaches are common.

“Our bodies tell us when things are not going well.”

An American employment attorney added this helpful comment;

Bullying is technically not against any state or federal law. However, more than 25% of state legislatures have introduced bills designed to prevent it, and to provide remedies for employees who suffer from it. What precisely constitutes “bullying” is probably the most controversial part of these proposed laws. Employers are nervous about having an obligation imposed on them when the scope of that obligation is not very clear. On the other hand, given the number of states that have considered these bills, and the number of employees who claim to have suffered from bullying (37% according to a 2007 study), it’s probably just a matter of time before a law is enacted somewhere.

There are also many laws that currently protect employees against behavior commonly considered to be “bullying.” Sexual and other harassment/discrimination laws at the state and federal levels protect against bullying on account of the victim’s gender, race, or other factors. Since most “bullies” are men and most “victims” are women (according to the survey), sexual harassment is certainly a possible legal remedy. A few court cases have also held that bullying-type behavior constituted assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or some other tort for which the bully, and possibly his/her employer, could be liable. Depending on the circumstances, all of these would apply to coworker bullying as well as supervisor-subordinate or even customer-vendor workplace bullying.

Last, just because no law applies doesn’t mean an employer can’t take steps to minimize or prevent it. Many employers recognize the productivity and morale benefits of a diverse and respectful workplace. Building such a workplace requires senior level commitment and consistent action to make sure that conditions on the ground match aspirational mission statements. Employers generally should, and often do, promulgate and enforce — through discipline, compensation, promotion, and/or termination — zero-tolerance policies that limit bullying and provide a basis for action when it occurs. Most employment attorneys or consultants can help draft such policies and provide advice regarding how to handle any violations.

It certainly pays to read articles on this subject to help arm yourself, not as a “difficult person” but to protect your rights as an employee and human. Naturally, one has to wonder if this is such a huge and costly problem, why none of the “HR people” who commented for this article ever mentioned the problems included in the examples sighted here. Could it be true that 62% of employers ignore the problem? That would mean 62% of all human resources people are lying and covering up the problems.

A motivational speaker specializing in business developments responded with a sharp insight:

There is a huge need to educate people on character but even a bigger need to celebrate their character. We need to teach supervisors to be better examples, fix their mistakes, and celebrate more when their people make good choices. Those are pillars of the Character First program. This will and has already, transformed companies.

Another simple but direct answer was from a Saskatchewan man I know to be the “bad boy” of several corporations and social media sites who said;

“I find most bullies are in HR.”

Leaving my last job and receiving a five-minute “goodbye!” and a forty-minute lecture reminding me of my one-year non-compete agreement, I got the feeling they wanted the word “FIRED!” to be an actual execution. Well, until employers have that power, human resources will be there to protect us.

Designers are often considered the low person in corporate structure and are the most common targets. It’s best to keep up a front of protection when you are the most vulnerable. One important fact I’ve taken away from HR people who drank too much at office parties and gave away corporate secrets is that you negotiate your way INTO your job and you can negotiate your way OUT of a job. Use the treatment you have received to up the ante. Extended payments and benefits is the HR way of keeping things quiet and the status quo…quo-ing! Sometimes you just have to take the money and run. So save every piece of paper, every email, every memo and keep them at home because when your time comes, they won’t let you collect your personal items and papers. The non-incriminating stuff will be returned to you…maybe. And you thought your new job would be days filled with designing and creative fun, didn’t you?

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  1. HR is the parasitic scurge of any company.

  2. I don’t get bullied because I’m a “creative”. What I do get is the perception that because I’m a “creative” I am assumed to be a person who goofs off most of the time and/or that my job is mere play and is not “real work.” The upshot is that I get a lot of micromanagement and close supervision from so-called managers and other people who are not my boss. I end up feeling that nobody trusts me despite the long hours I work and the extremely short deadlines.

  3. wow … bang on the money … i just escaped from such a toxic environment.

    thanks for a fantastic article!

  4. This has happened twice in my life, and followed me throughout my career. Both were as unfounded accusations by employees with power and self-esteem issues.
    Do not talk politics or religion or social issues in the office…someone always takes up the martyr flag.
    There are too many out there who feel victimized for one reason or another, and fight back by victimizing another. This is not just with designers, but I can’t back that up in my case.
    Do not allow ONE incident to pass without positive confrontation and an account given to the next higher up, at least.
    Definitely, write it all down!

  5. That reply did not work, lol…please remove!!

  6. The pedophile jokes in an attempt at humour do not make you a credible author nor someone who’s article I will be reading the rest of.

    It sounds like some human psychology classes would do you some good.

  7. HR is the parasitic scurge of any company. I think so !

  8. Thanks for sharing this beautiful and great post. keep up the right and great work. looking for some more informational posts like that. thumbs up.

  9. Very right. It is always the worker or designer who is the target.

  10. It sucks to be a victim of bullying. I didn’t really experience it fully, but the last time I worked in an office, it was a pretty hard environment. Work hours seems longer and the name of the game is avoidance. It was the least fun time I had.

  11. Hii..

    I never gone through this kind of things, Thank god i meet very nice people.

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