Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter?

Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss?

In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?

This question came up during sessions and informal discussions at the May “Work, Stress, and Health” conference in Orlando, and it has intrigued me since then.

The insider

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that outsiders can be treated better than insiders. However, I believe that in this context, insider status can be a risk factor, especially if a boss has a “you’re either with me or against me” mentality.

For the insider, anything smacking of a more public challenge to the boss’s positions (e.g., openly disagreeing at a team meeting) can be downright dangerous. A dissenting opinion from a “trusted” member of the inner circle may been regarded as an act of disloyalty, even betrayal.

The outsider

The outsider, by contrast, may be expected to be more of a critic, or at least less of a team player. His opinions may be treated dismissively due to that very status, and the fact that he is taken less seriously may be the reason he is not actively targeted.

Nevertheless, as countless stories of bullying attest, it would be a huge mistake to assume that a dissenting outsider is free from retaliatory wrath. If, for example, that dissent poses a genuine threat to the boss, then all bets are off. After all, in a work setting beset by controlling and insecure leadership, no one is immune from abusive treatment.

5 responses

  1. Absolutely ! That describes exactly what happened to me and the bosses psychology to a tee. Outsiders are dismissed and the inner circle as long as you swallow your integrity and professionalism you’ll be treated with …. not respect….. but tolerance. How do these people get management positions is beyond me. To take something positive out of a horrible work situation such as this, it has given me a new voice and focus to work towards outing these individuals and adding to the the list of reasons you can be fired on the spot…..Drinking on the job/Drugs/Stealing…. Bullying/Phycological Harassment/ Professional Rape!

  2. I agree with your statement: In a work setting beset by controlling and insecure leadership, no one is immune from abusive treatment. – Not top performers, family members, contacts. In my case, there was a definate trend. My boss left a trail of anguished targets… one after another…after another… because nobody would or could stop the abuses.

  3. Plainly, in a workplace whose culture is fraught with intimidation, the ethical supervisor stands at a disadvantage. The idea that the person’s spot in management’s inner circle would make him or her even more vulnerable is very unsettling, but it accounts for an odd conversation of earlier today. I was talking with an acquaintance about wrongly-discharged Massachusetts workers. If, I asked, the ex-employer denies the person his/her unemployment benefits, will a sympathetic ex-supervisor vouch for the person? She considered DUA review hearings she’s attended, and said that in that her experience, it didn’t happen. Apparently the mere presence of an HR director or other senior manager tends to deter the ex-employee’s ally from doing the right thing. … The Mass. Commission Against Discrimination has a partial solution: prior to the first hearing with both sides’ representatives, it permits witnesses to speak anonymously by phone with the investigator. Before talking, however, the investigator tells the caller that in the event of a trial, the caller’s identity (and statements?) could be made public. No wonder even a lower-ranking co-worker who has remained with an unethical firm is loathe to contribute to a DUA or MCAD hearing. … A mistreated ex-employee must steel him- or herself to face any former manager at a hearing. It seems unduly harsh to ask this complainant to imperil the one supervisor who did the right thing, or the one peer willing to offer support. Someday, I hope, an ex-employee may be able to enlist allies’ help in confidence of a stronger kind.

  4. That is exactly what is happening…it has happened to me. It helps explain why others shyed away from standing up against unjust and unethical behaviors in the work place. What bewilders me is why this is allowed to continue now that it has come to light.

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