The Boss or Colleague from Hell

Recently the Workers Compensation Board in Prince Edward Island, Canada, made a landmark ruling. They awarded benefits to a widow after her husband’s death was deemed connected to workplace bullying. The harassment had gone on for years. The victim had appealed for help many times but his company never intervened and eventually he had to take stress leave. Upon his return to work, the bullying resumed and a few days later he died of a heart attack.

I was alerted to the issue of abuse in the workplace in our own industry when conducting research with professional fundraisers in support of a book I was writing. Some respondents told me stories about heartbreaking situations that they were enduring at the time they were participating in our studies or which they had recently experienced. Accounts of workplace harassment were as likely to come from young, frontline fundraisers as from managers with decades of experience. I was compelled to write about it. Here is the excerpt from Donor-Centered Leadership.

If you have never worked for an abusive boss, never worked alongside an abusive co-worker, or never managed an abusive employee, you are very fortunate. Chronically disruptive and abusive employees and bosses are extraordinarily damaging and they are never worth retaining. They operate outside the accepted social code; they gain control over others by behaving without constraint while everyone around them reels under their emotional outbursts and vitriolic criticism.

Employers and employees become unwitting enablers of abusive workers. Employers are reluctant or outright afraid to confront an angry staff member in the heat of the moment. When the outburst subsides, they rationalize excuses and hope that it won’t happen again. Seeing that management is not taking action, co-workers and reports do their best to stay out of the line of fire while they look for other jobs.

Abusive fundraisers use their skill at raising money like a weapon. They work relentlessly at building relationships with important donors and leadership volunteers to whom they never show their darker side. This keeps those around them off-balance, wondering if they are somehow misinterpreting what they see and hear. They start questioning their own judgment.

Abusive fundraising bosses pit staff against each other, developing intense alliances with one or some while ostracizing others. Their power allows them to get away with behaviors like bullying a staff member in front of colleagues. Abusers succeed once, then twice, until humiliation becomes the accepted price one pays for working under this boss. Everyone around the victim becomes afraid that they will be next. So, instead of intervening or appealing to a higher authority, they curry favor with the abusive boss in the hope that his or her wrath will not descend on them.

If you manage an abusive employee, you must take action. Do not be cowed by the person or by the realization that you cannot manage this situation to a positive outcome. The abuser is counting on you to feel too embarrassed or ashamed to act. Refuse to be intimidated anymore. Take this issue to someone in authority today and seek outside expert help if you need it. This is an emergency and you are responsible for the welfare of your other staff.

If you work for an abusive boss and you see no avenue open to deal definitively with the problem, get out. If you stay, your self-esteem will erode and the stress will make you physically ill. Worst of all, you will start to believe that the abuser may be right. Victims of abusive people carry the scars long after the perpetrator is gone. Don’t let this happen to you. You deserve much better.

Showing 3 comments
  • A

    I appreciate you speaking out on this issue, expressing / advocating your values openly and honestly. People do matter. And true community is not easy to find and achieve. It involves healthy heart, values and courage ( Lat.”coeur “= heart)
    I hope many people get to see/ hear/ read it and find affirmation, relief and healing.

  • Anonymous

    I have been bullied and verbally abused by my boss for years. No one trusts her and is afraid to open a formal complaint in fear of retribution. It’s a very hard situation to be in.

    • Penelope Burk

      While the last paragraph of my blog is my best advice, leaving is not an easy choice even when you are being abused. Financial and/or other reasons may make resigning extremely difficult. And, while you are the one being victimized, you may still be hoping that you can somehow turn the situation around. People get blamed for staying in abusive situations, be they work-related or domestic. It’s one more unfair abuse that they endure along with everything else. If you feel you can manage it, you might try documenting for yourself what you are experiencing at the office but also at home. Are you sleeping at night? What are you feeling as you are getting ready to go to work? Is your anxiety spilling over into other parts of your life? Speak to someone non-judgmental if you can. Even better, access a professional resource who can help you through this most difficult of work situations. Keep breathing and know that a better future lies ahead. And, most important, this is not your fault.

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