Ron McMillan must have seemed like the perfect target to the three workers on an assembly line in Clearfield, Utah. McMillian had just finished his first year at college in the summer of 1971 and looked clean-cut, nice and perhaps naïve. So they bullied him.
"They'd do things like when I sat down at lunch — while I was eating, they would distract me," he says. "Then they'd pour motor oil on my sandwich."
They were relentless. They mocked him. They put him down.
"Words do hurt," he says. "They do damage."
That was when McMillan was, as he says, "quite young." The experience helped stir an interest in workplace bullying. Now, at 61, he is the co-author of the national best-seller "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High" and cofounder of VitalSmarts, an organizational consulting firm based in Provo, Utah. He is also part of a large demographic. Various studies place the percentage of people who have been bullied at work between 30 and 37 percent.
A study in the Management Communication Quarterly said workplace bullying can lead to psychosomatic illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and increased medical expenses, not to mention reduced productivity.
Gary Namie gained his interest in the topic after his wife experienced the "boss from hell."
"We thought it was harassment. Or maybe, it was dealing with a difficult person," he says.
They had no name for the experience until he heard of workplace bullying.
"You can be bullied and not even know it," he says, "You can be immersed in this misery and slide down a notch every day."
In 1997, Namie started what would eventually be called the Workplace Bullying Institute, based in Bellingham, Wa. The institute provides resources for employees who have been bullied and trains employers to end bullying in the workplace.
What is workplace bullying?
Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an associate professor of organizational communication at North Dakota State University, says workplace bullying is persistent aggression against someone. "It is repetitive," she says. "It continues on and on, getting worse over time. It is frequent. The bully picks away at the target. The victim feels they are unable to stop the attacks. They feel powerless, or at least less powerful than the bully."
Lutgen-Sandvik remembers her first job at a women's resource center for battered women. Ironically, the executive director was a "screaming, raging bully," even in front of the battered women, who would cringe and grab the arms of their chairs.
Eventually, employees informed the center's board of directors. It took months, but the boss was removed.
Who are the bullies?
Lutgen-Sandvik calls the worst workplace bullies "high aggressives."
"They don't have a well-developed sense of empathy," she says. "They are high on narcissism."
They are horrible one second to a target, she says, then perform beautifully with smiles for a supervisor.
Lutgen-Sandvik says bullies' low sense of self-esteem or security can make them target anyone perceived as a threat. Bullies fear losing their place of power. Driven by fear, she says, they don't care about others' feelings.
"I believe they know what they are doing," she says.
Who are the targets of bullies?
"Bullies target kind people," Horn says. "Popular people. People others respect. Bullies see such people as threats. Bullies feel intimidated and target their victims to diminish them — thinking that if they shrink their victim it will make them taller."
Because the victims often have high senses of empathy and morality, Horn says, they are confounded by the bully. "They can't believe that someone would act this way," she says. "Because they are people of integrity, they question themselves and ... feel powerless."
McMillan had enough of the three bullies and complained to his supervisor. The response? "Well, welcome to the real world. You've just got to man up."
After work one day, he confronted one of the bullies alone in the parking lot. McMillan was a wrestler and says he tried to intimidate the man as they violently shouted at each other.
"I guess I scared him off," he says, "They left me alone after that."
But he regrets the way he handled the problem and says that confrontation could have escalated and gotten him injured or worse.
Namie says confrontations or reporting the incident to a boss or human resources officer may only increase the bullying as the bully feels threatened and retaliates. A study by the institute says 69 percent of victims have confronted the bully and 93 percent of those confrontations failed to stop the bullying.
Lutgen-Sandvik, however, says that it is hard to know for sure if confronting or reporting bullying works, since a successful confrontation may not end up being reported.
What to say
McMillan thinks talking to the bully may be worth trying. For example, if an employee is insulted in front of others (a typical bullying tactic), the employee could privately say something to the bully such as, "When in the meeting you said I was an idiot, it felt like a personal insult and was not advancing the discussion. Was that your intention?"
McMillan calls such an approach “naming the game” because the bully has to explain his intentions.
Lutgen-Sandvik says another tactic recognizes bullies are motivated by fear. She suggests saying something like: "I want you to know I understand how important this project is to you. I want to make as sure as I can that it has a positive outcome. I am committed to doing that for you."
Horn suggests being direct and saying things like "You back off." If the bully looms over a person, that person should literally stand up to them.
Horn admits, however, there is no one right way to deal with bullies.
Namie says confronting the bully immediately — answering the bully's aggression with aggression may — but usually won’t — stop the bully.
"If they could have stopped it," he says, "they would have. They can't or will not defend themselves."
Bullies know it.
Strength in numbers
McMillan says a company has to tolerate bullies for them to exist. Co-workers are complicit if they allow bullies to hurt others.
"One of the most hurtful things you can do is to go silent when someone trespasses another person's boundaries," he says.
Lutgen-Sandvik agrees that co-workers can make a big difference. She recommends a co-worker try "pivoting" the conversation if a bully says something disrespectful to a colleague. Pivoting means taking the conversation immediately in another direction without directly challenging the bully's insults. She also says it helps to say positive things about co-workers.
Sometimes co-workers need to involve supervisors. McMillan says to stick to the facts if this is done. The topic should be what was said and when.
Lutgen-Sandvik says people shouldn't be afraid of getting the bully fired, or even making the suggestion.
The Workplace Bullying Institute has attempted to get laws against workplace bullying in several states — so far without success. The goal, Namie says, is mostly to get employers to end bullying in their companies.
It may be, however, because of his position in the company, the bully won't be cowed, reprimanded or fired. In cases where the victim was required to go through mediation with the bully, 33 percent of the time the victim was fired or quit. The perpetrators were fired only 3 percent of the time, according to a Workplace Bullying Institute study.
Namie suggests in some cases victims consider finding a new job, particularly if the incidents are occuring at a small family-owned business or if the bully has close ties to a high-level executive at a company.
"If there is really no one to appeal to and make your argument," he says, "you may have to leave." But, he says, "leave swinging."
Make sure the company knows why (and because of whom) you are leaving, he says.
Leaving includes transferring to another job in a larger company or just quitting.
"Removing yourself from a toxic environment is not failure," Horn says. "It is a statement that you value yourself more than allowing yourself to stay in that situation. It means you believe you should be in a work relationship that has respect."