When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers)

All things being equal, most of us would much prefer a workplace where civility, rather than incivility, shapes the dominant culture. After all, who wants to work at a place where nastiness is the norm?

But at times, the organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work. It often starts with mistreatment masked by a steady, calm demeanor. This may include behaviors that are calculated to be plausibly deniable, such as bullying by omission (e.g., exclusion and ostracism), “lighter” forms of harassment, or indirect discrimination.

In such situations, the abuser may be skilled at button pushing and attempt to elicit a sharp reaction from the target. If the target reacts emotionally, perhaps even losing his temper, the abuser and/or her enablers may respond with false astonishment, outrage, or hurt. The target has now broken an actual or implicit civility code.

The target’s behavior may allow an abuser to claim victim status. At this point, HR may step in — on the side of the abuser! (The legal department may not be far behind.)

The workplace psychopath or “almost psychopath” is very good at orchestrating this toxic dance. Furthermore, the abuser’s cool, logical, business-as-usual front also may have the (oft-deliberate) effect of making the target doubt her own judgment. This can reach the level of “gaslighting” — a crazy making type of bullying intended to mess with someone’s head.

Of course, these behaviors rarely occur in isolation. Organizational culture usually serves as the broader sponsor for employee mistreatment. The scenarios described here are most likely to emerge in workplaces that adopt what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call a “pseudo-relational” culture, where surface politeness trumps honest, open communication.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of open conflict. However, as I’ve written before, I’d prefer a workplace where people can discuss their concerns — even if it means tempers flaring on occasion — over one where human emotions are bottled up and differences are expressed passive-aggressively. The latter may well empower the worst types of workplace aggressors.

15 responses

  1. Really important distinction and insight, David. Thank you. Unfortunately, most of can relate to the ‘workplace psychopath’. And all you could do was try to stay out of their way.

  2. Thanks David! I need to add superficial: code of conduct, mission and/or mandate statement, charter, human rights policy, respect in the workplace policy and the list goes on. In my profession the workplace bullying perpetrators are psychologists, doctors, nurses, pastors, social workers and counsellings (with a variety of backgrounds) and so on. The skill involved in setting up a target comes very easy to someone who is trained to assess and address human behaviors. The “workplace psychopath or almost psychopaths” certainly exist in the helping professions. We can image the skill level of a helping professional when it comes to selecting tactics and timing for sabotaging targets. Especially when assessing strenghts and areas of vulnerability is our expertise. I am a recovered target who experienced bullying from my manager, a seasoned psychologists. He would use, abuse, and step on anyone to achieve his goal of notarity in his position. Though he took many casualties (regardless of strong evidence against him) those above him protected and praised him for surviving what his staff (his targets) put him through. He was good at what you describe so well as ‘playing the victim role’.

    The other side of this for targets in my profession is that we are also trained to assess, address and understand human behaviours. We are able to see the train crash coming over and over again. We are acutely aware of the full impact of the impending career wreck ahead. In addition to this complexity in the helping profession, we are expected to prevent, address, and treat various forms of abuse so many people (including our union reps) believe this abuse would not be occuring amongst us. This increases our risks of abuse and the affects that stress, shame, isolation, self doubt (to name a few) will have over our health signficiantly.

    I would like to hear from more helping professionals in these situations so that this secrecy can end. No matter how many letters we have following our names, we are human first. Bullying affects all professions. Police officers sometimes have children who become criminals, oncologists are sometimes diagnosed with cancer, and helping professionals experience ‘life crisis’ just like everyone else. We have an ethical obligation to learn the signs and open our eyes in our own environments. We need to speak out and address this issue in our own lives if we are offering help to others. We can open this closet door and step out for no one needs to feel alone in this issue.

    The positive note here is that once we are aware, we already have the tools for our recovery, and for making influential changes all around.

    • Linda, I have worked in helping professions since college. I could not agree more with many of the points you made. I opt to quietly try to help those who have been, are, or likely will be targets (or bullies). I come in more the back door vs. use a direct approach. In dysfunctional work settings, a person has to be very careful what is said ‘out loud’ re: bullying. Talking about bullying sometimes just services to increase the size of the circle on a person’s back.

      • “Talking about bullying sometimes just services to increase the size of the circle on a person’s back.”

        I should have written ‘serves’ not ‘services.’

  3. Thanks for another great post! I was a member of a panel at a conference in April and spoke about ‘civility campaigns’ on many college campuses. Many of these campaigns emphasize politeness …. as if that is the sole characteristic of a civil workplace. I commented that it may be dangerous to equate civility with politeness because some of the biggest bullies may be quite polite! Such was the case in my own experience with a toxic workplace. Because of the superficial politeness, many people who didn’t work as closely with the bully had a very difficult time believing that he could be manipulative and nasty. Yet behind closed doors …. he would spit and point and yell. Thanks for your ongoing great work, Dave!

  4. Great post! You are exposing the sneaky, diabolical, manipulative behavior of these sweet-faced demons. Thank you.

  5. excellent piece and very true what l walterskramer describes over polite people reacting differently ie ‘behind closed doors’. Lisa

  6. Today’s jobs stress our minds leading to physical issues like high blood pressure, weight gain,etc…The ‘Safety’ area on our employee evaluations (B,U.) asks if we “maintain a safe work environment… actively support a culture of safety and encourages others to do so..”
    Maybe it’s time for an update or, at least, a shift in perspective.

  7. I was glad to read your article and the responses. I am a retired school teacher who went to work for a large law firm where the HR administrator has been bullying the support staff for years while she puts on her mask of deception for the attorneys. In the year that I have been there I have watched her target one after another and get away with it. She is very unprofessional in her conversations about other employees, telling the most inappropriate things to me within the first two days I was working. Six months into my job, she called me one day to tell me to watch my back with one of the girls working there. She said she was not a good employee, she didn’t care about the company and if she didn’t do what she asked her to do she might find herself without a job. I had just witnessed a really good employee tell the administrator she was a bully and walk off the job, and I did not want the other girl to do that. It felt like the admin was drawing a line in the sand and wanting me to choose her side. I knew what would happen if I didn’t. I would be next on her list. So, I went to the attorneys and told them what the administrator said. The president told me she has been called in repeatedly for the same things, but hardly anyone is willing to come to them. He said they have lost many valuable employees, costing the company a lot of money, but she continues to repeat her monstrous behavior. I learned as a teacher of ninth graders that the only way to deal with a bully is to assert extreme authority, and sometimes that doesn’t work. I received positive statements from the managing attorneys and she was called in on the carpet, but no consequences were given to her. I keep a good line of communication with the managing attorney and he seems very supportive and he told me he thought she might make me a target if she found out I was the one who came to him. This week she made me her target and accused me of making up things on the time sheets that I keep of the support staff. After the second time she falsely accused me, I realized that it wasn’t about the time sheet, this was her trying to assert her control over me and make me her target because she was feeling out of control over the attorneys bringing in a manager that will eventually have her job. I asked the administrator if she was choosing me as her next target and she acted shocked, walked off and shut herself in her office for the rest of the day. I talked to the president about it and told him what occurred. I’ll wait to see if anything comes of it, but if it doesn’t I will force the issue by asking to be removed from her supervision.

  8. Thank you for this post. I would like to add, that even in a situation where the target is informed on the tactics of workplace bullying, and encounters this button-pushing behaviour (aware the bully is pushing buttons to get a reaction and then “play victim”, to “prove” to HR and others the target is a “problem”); the target then refrains from reacting, realizing this is the bully’s “game”, and instead takes it in stride realizing the most important thing is to escape the abuser, attempt to get another position, play the subservient role long enough to escape somewhat intact, and does NOT react to any deliberate triggers, it still may not help. Sometimes, in more severe cases with a particularly manipulative psychopath workplace bully, she will just outright lie. She will fabricate entire dialogues and incidents that are so far from truth, and tell others that the target “acted out” in some way that indicates she may become violent. Ths bully, once realizing she already adequately damaged target’s reputation, such that management, colleague and HR will almost ALWAYS just believe the bully supervisor over the now-traumatized target, will engage in fabrication of events that have no basis in reality whatsoever. With plenty of “hypermonitoring” meetings behind closed doors (just target and her supervisor/bully) where no one really knows except the abuser and the abused; plus the rumour-mongering (management-only meetings or victim-playing unofficial meetings with colleagues) where target is discussed as a “problem employee”, by the covert abuser/manager/victim-playing psychopath, the target is never given a chance to defend herself, and a mobbing situation brews whereby every little action of the traumatized target is misinterpreted as “evidence” the target is crazy or even dangerous, and supporters pile up behind the abuser and against the target: at this point the abuser realizes she has the support from the organization, and will be believed no matter how wild and outlandish a story she tells, about the target freaking out and doing and/or saying things that actually never happened. Because people begin to believe that the target is “dangerous”, no one twlls the target, at least not officially, that she is even being accused of such horrific behaviour; if target were informed, she probably has proof to the contrary or would demand an investigation, which might reveal the truth. The psychopath/bully absolutely does not want anyone digging into facts because she is basing her destruction of this target/employee on vicious lies, and chances are, if the target is smart, she kept documentation and has ways to dispel the false accusations. The bully, however, relies of lies and manipulation, and may retroactively fabricate “documentation”, but the target who has told truth the whole time and can substantiate any facts with evidence, will eventually expose the bully for the malicious liar, bully, abuser and perhaps even the psychopath she is. There is also a very good chance the abuser/bully told different lies to different entities, and has kept those separate. IF a fair investigation were to occur, those inconsistencies will be revealed. The bully will do whatever she can to lead people to rely on rumour and hearsay and steer them clear of facts. Facts will be on the target’s side. The psychopath/bully will have weaved a web of lies so deep that if investigated officially, will prove she is lying and that the target is telling truth. Problem is, the target becomes so damaged and fearful, going into strict survival mode, she is not pushing for official processes; she is trying to preserve health, credibility, employability and at this point, just focused on escaping the escalating abuse. By then, there is a long list of accusations and fabricated events harming the target’s reputation; accusations never directly presented to the target, and/or that were never challenged officially while the target was still in the workplace. The target is deemed crazy and dangerous, but isn’t directly told. Some in HR & management, realize these are the bully’s lies, but fear liability (if target were to take legal action) so they use the false accusations and reshape the trauma-symptoms the target began exhibiting (fear of real danger becomes “paranoid delusions”; being sick offen or being terrified becomes “unfit for duty” etc) Then once target “escapes”, the bully becomes sole historian. Bully is believed (or HR rolls with the bully’s lies & pretends to believe) no matter how outlandish and unsubstantiated the bully’s stories of the target’s behaviour were. The target becomes unemployable. Sometimes the bully continues to stalk and harass the target AFTER the target “escapes”. The bully ensures the target is terrorized and kept under threat of doom for years. This type of bully may destroy all subsequent employment opportunities, stalk, cyberstalk, harass, hack and even continue in the victim-role accusing the target falsely of crimes even years after the target has gone. Cyberstalking and online crimes may become a favored tactic of the bully to continue terrorizing the target, using target’s personnel file data to put target in danger of physical assault or identity theft. It can get that severe. I do think these situations are underrepresented in the workplace bullying literature, as the psychopath is not so much “just” a workplace bully, but a sadistic, violent, malicious criminal who becomes obsessed with (and obsessed with torturing & destroying) her target. She just happened to capture her target in the workplace, and used that workplace as her platform to build this toxic, dangerous obsession. But she will not necessarily move on to another target IN the workplace within the average 2 days to 2 weeks, rather, she will continue to pursue the specific target she had set out to destroy, now outside the workplace. Employers should still be concerned because there is such a thing as vicarious liability for ongoing harassment (if not just concerned for the damage to their workforce, that this type of bully causes; plus plain old human ethics — i wish ethics & humanity were enough to encourage HR to do the right, honest thing, but unfortunately it seems not to be — which I suppose is why we need a law to get these preventative policies in place, like Healthy Workplace Bill — which I’m betting would prevent about 90% of cases like this from starting in the first place. That benefits employees and employers, whereas allowing ongoing ignorance on the topic, enabling the abusers to bully with impunity, benefits no one; serves only a bully’s own agenda).

    • You’ve shared so much useful food for thought here that I’ll have to limit myself to just one of your important points.

      I agree that the worst case bullying situations, the ones that have crossed into the realm of what I call “John Grisham novel” intensity, are underrepresented in the bullying & mobbing literature. Being able to verify these abuses can be very difficult, especially when they appear in anonymous, electronic form. Here’s where the Healthy Workplace Bill will help: A lawsuit enables the plaintiff to file discovery requests. It means there’s some possibility of opening the previously sealed container of hidden, hard-to-trace activities. If, for example, there’s an e-trail of stalking and harassment, the discovery process may yield some sunlight on those activities.

  9. I guess my point was, and I should have just said this:
    Even when a bullied target navigates successfully thru all the bully’s setups, button-pushing, and tactics to get an ‘inappropriate reaction’ out of a target, to then play victim & “prove” the target is crazy, dangerous, violent etc., in the end, if all else fails to trigger the target to react in such ways, a devious, manipulative bully will resort to outright lies and complete fabrications of dialogues and events, then have the target blamed for doing all these awful things, regardless of how well the target handled things laying low and NEVER reacting to those triggers.

  10. Pingback: Wooly Bully Update – Posted on Hunter-L « The WORD Blog

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