How to stand up to the office bully

Molly Shepard (left) and Peter Dean (right), two of the city's premier workplace consultants pose in their Fitler Square home January 11, 2017. The husband and wife couple wrote a book called "The Bully-Proof Workplace," set for publication in March. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Is there a bully in the White House?

Not yet, say the Philadelphia authors of a new book, The Bully-Proof Workplace: Essential strategies, Tips and Scripts for Dealing with the Office Sociopath

“I’m very worried about the leadership being in the hands of someone who is exhibiting classic bullying behavior,” said Molly D. Shepard, who wrote the book with her husband and fellow executive coach, Peter J. Dean. The two are partners in Leaders Edge/ Leaders by Design.

Long before the election, Shepard and Dean had decided to write about bullying because nearly everyone they had  encountered in their decades-long separate practices of executive coaching had experienced bullying – either as victim or perpetrator.

The authors define bullying as actions targeted to “threaten the intrinsic worth of a person and to denigrate and diminish that person’s will at work,” Dean said. Insecure themselves, bullies react by attacking others, overtly and covertly. 

“There’s hardly a senior woman that I’ve coached that hasn’t been bullied,” Shepard said.

They also began to see bullying’s consequences for organizations – talented people in full bloom of creativity and ambition withering on the job, afraid or unwilling to contribute. Others simply took their talents elsewhere.  

Dean tells the story of men in a remote lumber camp who fed high-grade wood products into a chipper when their bullying boss’ back was turned.  “It makes the workplace a lonely place,” said Dean. “Bullying behavior begets more bullying.”

Their book, to be published March 1 by McGraw Hill, cites an Australian study estimating that bullying costs Australian business up to $9.7 billion U.S., for a much smaller country. Costs include legal expenses, absenteeism, lost productivity, and turnover. 

What should someone do if bullied at work?

Fight back, they say. “We’re not here to change the bully, but to help others stand up to him,” Dean said.

Shepard and Dean lay out strategies and scripts for victims, and for managers trying to curb the office bully. 

The two bring credentials to the topic. After working for Diversified Search and the Hay Group, Shephard founded Manchester Inc., an executive outplacement firm that became one of the nation's largest before she sold it in 1997. In 2001, she started Leader's Edge, specializing in counseling women. Dean, a consultant hired by Aramark, Wawa, and Microsoft, lectured on leadership at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School for 15 years and taught management at the American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr.

They begin by analyzing four bully types. One is the classic Brute, a yeller, mostly male, who couples physical intimidation or the threat of it with demeaning language.

The Braggart bullies others by grabbing the limelight and stealing credit for others’ accomplishments, sapping confidence.

The Blocker may come off as a detail-oriented perfectionist but secretly doesn’t want anyone else to succeed. Blockers bully by inventing creativity-killing obstacles.

Most difficult to fight is the Belier, who, while friendly on the surface, subtly spreads career-damaging rumors.

First, nurture a network of supporters on all levels.

Also, analyze and document, the authors say. They provide checklists to determine if bullying is occurring, and if so, by what type.

They suggest “a critical incident technique" -- outline the situation, describe the behavior, and explain the consequences, documenting incidents over time and incorporating them into scripts to be used to confront the bully. 

Ahead of the confrontation, to be done in private, prepare mentally for the inevitable emotional fallout, resolving not to lose control, they advise. Rehearse out loud.

Start by saying what was expected – to be able to contribute or learn. Explain what happened instead and the impact on work, drawing from the critical incident reports.  Beforehand, think what specific outcome is desired and persist until resolution.

The simple act of preparation will provide confidence.  “You are armed,” Shepard said.

But will it work? 

"The analogy of a schoolyard bully isn't perfect, if the office bully is your boss because they have continuing power over you that you can't overcome even by confronting them successfully," said Peter Cappelli, a Wharton professor who studies management.  "You prevent them from being a public jerk ; they can do it in private.  

"Of course, there are some bullies who really like to fight, so confronting them just provides more sport.  The real risk is that you get beaten up."    

In the end, Shepard and Dean acknowledge, the bullying might not stop. The employee may lose a job or leave it. But there’s a cost in continuing to be a victim, as Cappelli also noted.

“If a person who is being bullied doesn’t stand up to the bully in some way,” Dean said, “the bullying will increase and it becomes habituated” as the bully develops a rationale for his behavior.

Worse, he said, “the victim begins to rely on the bullying,” allowing the bully to define the victim's self-worth.

“Either way," he said, "you have something to lose.”  

We want to hear from you: Have you been bullied at work? How did you respond? Email jvonbergen@phillynews.com, putting bully in the subject line, or comment below.