Category Archives: Bullying by women

The dark side of humour

Humour in the Workplace

The right to be offensive

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire

I found myself the other evening at the heart of a heated dinner debate and somewhat surprisingly not in the majority camp either. The issue: the right to be humorous, even if it causes offence and what this means for the undermining of freedom of speech by overly political correctness. Should we be able to say what we like when if it’s supposed to be funny? It was a long dinner!

The discussion started around a remark made by a British comedian, Frankie Boyle, who made what he believed presumably to be a joke about a disabled boy. There was some negative media commentary afterwards and the mother, a minor and truthfully publicity seeking, headline grabbing, British celebrity, thereafter made a documentary about handicapped children.

Orwellian Newspeak
Humour in any organisation is a vital ingredient to creating a successful working atmosphere, so I am not suggesting a move towards the 1984 diminishing vocabulary of ‘Newspeak’, the politically correct language in Orwell’s famous dystopia. But stereotypes and prejudice do die hard. If we create a comedic culture where it is acceptable to use “jokes” about vulnerable people, then for me this marks the crossing of a very distinct line and sets the scene for the validation of copy cat behaviour.

There is no doubt that different groups have been singled out and targeted over history in jokes by more powerful and dominant sectors of our society, based on: gender, race, religion, physiology, nationality to name but a few. I understand that eliminating this type of behaviour in our media is not necessarily going to eradicate it from our societies. A culture of formal disapproval has been created around certain “isms” ( e.g. racism, sexism, anti- Semitism) which are now illegal, which we saw with John Galliano and his anti-Semitic rant earlier this year, or Mel Gibson’s racist tirade.

It’s hardly surprising that if in our wider cultures, offensive humour goes unchecked, that it sets the tone in our workplaces, when disrespectful comments, cloaked as jokes are on the increase, along with other forms of verbal abuse. We tend to think of this behaviour as shouting and /or profanity, but it also comes in more subtle, lower key, but equally damaging forms. Humour is one of them. According to U.S. Legal Definitions site, the definition is: “Verbal abuse is the use of words to cause harm to the person being spoken to. It is difficult to define and may take many forms. Similarly, the harm caused is often difficult to measure. The most commonly understood form is name-calling. Verbal abuse may consist of shouting, insulting, intimidating, threatening, shaming, demeaning, or derogatory language, among other forms of communication.”

Ill disguised malice
Humour (the quality of being amusing) can very often simply be ill disguised malice. I coached an entry-level employee recently whose boss referred to him within the department as his ” monkey”. Another contact left a job because of the constant jokes made about her figure. Another changed organisations because of incessant teasing about his red hair, which he now colours blond to avoid the jokes and name calling. (A teacher friend subsequently mentioned that red heads are considered a number one bullying target in schools). I have coached clients who have been the butt of jokes about their regional accents, clothes, hobbies and vision (or lack thereof.)

Much of this behaviour if allowed to continue in a working environment, can be profoundly damaging and develop into a form of bullying, which should be dealt with as such. It is of course difficult to measure and very subjective. What can be offensive to one person, may be glossed over and considered hilariously funny by another. How do we benchmark sensitivity? But disrespectful behaviour has been identified as costing as much as $300 billion

Political correctness
This is not to suggest that communication and language be sanitized to a monotonous neutrality, where fun is taken out of the workplace. Nor should we live in constant fear of offending people and getting caught up in the complex maze of political correctness, where we can no longer call a man with no hair, bald , or the use of the word manhole, rather than maintenance portal, comes with a reprimand. Hailing from the North of England my directness has not gone unnoticed, even when I believe I am exercising great restraint! I suspect would find myself in even more trouble.

I rejoice in the fact that I live in countries where freedom of speech is embraced. But neither am I convinced that ” A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.” Napoleon I.

It is also about how we say things.

Moving on from bullying: leave a legacy

This post was orignally a guest post for Ann Lewis author of “Recover your balance: How to bounce back from bad times at work”

Take a stand
In my research for my series on the bullying of women in the work place by women, I was contacted by a huge number of women and somewhat surprisingly men too. Most of this communication was private.

Two messages
This sent me two messages: the first was that bullying is still a shame based experience leaving many unable to openly admit that it had happened. The other was that individuals who had been targets, even years later, went to considerable lengths not only to protect the identity of the perpetrators, but also the organisations where they worked. In many cases little or nothing had been done to support them. In essence, the bullied had become part of an enabling process which allowed repeat offenders to continue abusive behaviour.

Could I say they these victims had moved on?
No, not really. Many had simply resigned and left organisational life to become corporate refugees by working freelance or starting their own business. Some went onto be bullied in subsequent jobs. Others had abandoned their careers totally. Most were scarred, still bewildered and angry. Many had had such horrific experiences, which in my naivety I had previously only associated with movie story lines.

Premeditated sabotage strategies aside, on a daily basis many accused bullies (especially women) have no idea that their behaviour is perceived as « bullying « and are quite shocked or even distressed when finally challenged. So it seems that the bullying process can be viewed as a breakdown, or absence of, constructive communication, with each party needing to assume responsibility for their own role in the dysfunctional dynamic.

Tri-partite responsibility
• The responsibility of the “ target” is to communicate his/her perception of the situation and follow through as required . Failure to do this can mean staying stuck in a negative position, which is tantamount to handing over personal power to both the bully and the organisation.
• The responsibility of the bully is to change his/her behaviour and communication style to acceptable norms.
• The responsibility of the organisation is to ensure that it is carried out.

What would I suggest to anyone who feels that they are being bullied?

• Research corporate and sector guidelines. Most countries have no legislation to deal with bullying, although that is changing. Benchmark your experience against those checklists.
• Seek professional help early in the process. This is good investment. You are experiencing a trauma! If you were suffering a wound to your leg, would you try and treat it yourself? No! You’d see a doctor!
• Work on strategies to self advocate and heal. Focus on becoming “unstuck” and taking responsibility for retreiving your own position .
• In tandem set up an audit trail of abusive treatment. Document and note each incident. This will be useful in any internal inquires or even eventual legal action.
• Find a mentor. Someone who can support and validate you professionally.

Strategic challenge
Walking away from a bad experience maybe sufficient for some to heal and I agree that in a number of instances, “letting go” will do it. However, the individuals who seemed be in the best place, were the very few who had found the courage to challenge the bully in a constructive and strategic way, as well as tenaciously dealing with the organisations where the bullying had occurred, even to the point of legal action.

Cultural contribution
This is not about revenge, although I’m sure for some individuals that might play a satisfying part. Stepping up in this way is also about contributing to the cultural change of what is acceptable workplace behaviour. It will raise public awareness to prevent the same thing happening to others. This transparency also obliges organisations to enforce (rather than pay lip service to) workplace protocols instead of intervening only when the bottom line is negatively impacted. Think of the significant advances that have happened over the last 40 years in the areas of discrimination against women, minorities or the physically impaired. This has been the cumulative result of individual as well as group action.

So somehow, and easier said than done I know, the targets of bullying need to dig deep to find the courage to step up and take a stand, not just for their own recovery, but for the protection of our future working environments. To quote Martin Luther King “Justice denied anywhere, diminishes justice everywhere

That is when personal moving on also leaves a legacy.

What do you think?

Whatever happened to Jane?

One story on women and workplace bullying

A few months ago I wrote about a client who I called Jane. She sparked my interest in bullying in the work place of women by women. It was enlightening and eye-opening. I shared my discovery experience of the whole process via a series of posts, which hopefully you are familiar with. I examined the reasons why women bully, the methods they use, the differences compared to male bullying, how organisations deal with this phenomenon and finally what victims can do to deal with it.

However, in the intervening months many of you have been repeatedly asking “Whatever happened to Jane?” Jane, you will be pleased to hear, has quietly but effectively been doing what she felt she needed to do and asked me to wait before I shared her experiences until after she had completed her own healing process. She is now in a place where she is looking forward and has given me permission to share her story.


One of the first things I did as a coach was to research bullying, establish what it is and to decide if I felt there was a real issue of abuse in Jane’s case. I’m the eldest of 4, with an authoritarian father and my early career was spent in the steel industry, so personally, I have a reasonably high resistance to intimidating behaviour, so I have to factor that in. But after researching, there was no question in my mind – Jane was being systematically bullied and ground down. What was additionally painful for her was that her husband felt she needed to toughen up and assert herself which added to her feelings of isolation. Here is a re-cap of her story. She was:

– singled out for public criticism about her work and appearance
– regularly called into her bosses office at 17.20 to be given additional work with tight deadlines
– excluded from email circulation lists and meetings
– only person in the department not invited to a social event at bosses house
– attempts to discuss had been dismissed with contempt
– The HR department would only get involved if a formal complaint was made

Benchmark the case

Jane’s first task was to carry out a health check on her own job performance. In the absence of official feedback, she felt satisfied that her own performance met expectation ( surpassed it even). She noted all her major achievements during the previous 12 months and produced a list of metrics to support the contribution she had made to her department. Her second assignment was to make her own research project on general guidelines on bullying within her company and sector and to establish where she felt her own treatment lay on that spectrum. She produced concrete evidence which indicated fairly strongly that sector and workplace guidelines and recommendations were being contravened. This not only helped her trust her own instincts again, but also allowed her talk to her husband in a factual and neutral way about her own position. In her case, getting genuine support from him and dealing with the personal relationship issues which had arisen because of this bullying, was as significant as confronting the situation in the workplace.

Keeping a log

She went back and tracked all the instances where she had felt bullied and began keeping a log of each new incident. She asked precise and specific questions relating to feedback on all the issues for which she had been publicly criticised, notably her appearance and work performance. Her emails received no response but the public criticism stopped as did private negative comments. In fact she was given no feedback at all. In just a year under her new manager, she received no formal professional goals or performance review, despite numerous requests.

She also carried out an audit of the emails where she had been omitted from the distribution list and made a list of the meetings from which she had been excluded. She let all her superiors in the hierarchy know that this was happening. She kept a tracking record of the times she was asked to work late and made suggestions for improving workplace through put. Those requests also stopped.


I would love to say that Jane went on to talk constructively to her boss about her struggles with her managerial style, air kisses were exchanged, hands shaken and their difficulties eventually resolved as it might in a movie. But this is her story and that didn’t happen. She had lost all respect for her boss and just wanted to put the whole experience behind her. We had also worked simultaneously on job search strategies and at the end of June, Jane was approached by another organisation and has subsequently accepted their offer.

Happy ending

In her carefully crafted and fully annotated resignation letter and later in an exit interview with HR, Jane stated clearly that bullying was the reason for her leaving. This complaint was not processed previously because it had not been formally introduced. Her manager is now being investigated internally, although Jane, somewhat cynically, doesn’t think anything will come of it as the department produces excellent results. “She’s tough but she gets things done” is the comment made of her boss. She did hear from an ex-colleague that there was talk of introducing an intermediary ( buffer) layer reporting into the departmental head, but so far that has not been made official. Perhaps creating a promotion opportunity was Jane’s legacy!

Jane consulted a lawyer regarding suing for constructive dismissal ( that is being forced to resign). Her lawyer was doubtful about her chances of winning, although she felt she had a “reasonable” case given Jane’s excellent record keeping. Apparently it would have been stronger if Jane had been physically assaulted or yelled at publically. So interestingly, one moment of extreme physical abuse (male style) carries more legal weight than a year of covert intimidation (female style). Stealth bullying by women is very hard to audit and to prove. Additionally, her company is a global household name and the process could have taken years.

However, she was given the option of gardening leave during her notice period because of “untenable circumstances”. Combined with her annual vacation entitlement and an unpaid “gap period”, she is touring in Asia as we speak with her husband. She starts her new job in November.

Her final words are ” It will never happen again”.

That’s her happy ending.

The Lipstick Jungle: Get me out of here!

This continues my series of bullying by women in the work place. Please see previous posts: Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant, The Lipstick Jungle, Mascara Mafia , The Petticoat Polemic

For many women, organisations are not safe places. Not only are they more likely to be bullied by a man, but also by another woman. For many this bullying leaves indelible scars, ultimately impacting their long-term view of their future career progression. Forbes research suggests as many as a third of women leave the workplace for one reason or another with 24% indicating straight dissatisfaction. Certainly my sources cited bullying as a major influence. With all the challenges both professional and financial that women face, staying at home with the kids (74%) becomes an attractive option to those in untenable situations.

Changing times
The pace of social change in the last 40 years seems to have left women, despite outstripping men academically, feeling uncertain on how to progress once they enter the workplace. With so-called high EQs, we think they intuitively know what to do, but all indications suggest they don’t. If they act like men, they’re damned. If they act like women, they’re damned too. This results in a maelstrom of confusion. Annabel Kaye reminded us that many bullies are not even aware of their behaviour and there is also a noticeable gap between management and political rhetoric and the realities of organisational life.

Traditional Steps
A further aspect of my research indicated that the support strategy many victims received from coaches generally focused on the healing process: restoration of confidence, letting go of anger and moving on, as well as responding with emotional intelligence. This is all essential, but all the women I was in touch with, without exception, went on to leave their organisations. The research also indicated that HR professionals and line management, despite paying lip service to ethical workplace practises, tend to respond only to hard facts and official complaints. So it seems that something is missing from the traditional process and that other more practical dimensions need to be added.

Early action
In the early days most victims I spoke to felt confused and intimidated by what was happening to them and quite often waited far too long before seeking support, sometimes many months down the line .

Creating an early, time bound, goal – related action plan is key and the earlier the better. If there is a gut feeling over a reasonable period of time that something isn’t right – then it probably isn’t…. somewhere. So investigate. Treat this sensation like any other malaise. A pain in the shoulder, a sore foot, a stomach ache. Would you sit there feeling increasingly debilitated by a physical symptom without investigation? No. Highly unlikely. We can’t sit there and wait for someone to step in and rescue us either – all indicators suggest that this is unlikely to happen.

Defining the context is necessary now. Facts talk. Finding out the guidelines for bullying behaviour in your geographic region, sector or company is a must. Do these companies have a grievance process or a written policy on respectful workplace practises? These are your benchmarks, so establishing what they are and being familiar with the content is important. Knowing your rights and precisely when they are being transgressed is also more empowering than “feeling” bullied. It also will tell you if the line has been crossed into harassment which is legally defined. If this is the case, seek legal and psychological support immediately.

Evaluation of personal performance is next and being clear that all aspects of performance and presence in the workplace are up to scratch. Somewhat contentiously, I actually don’t think that because a person feels bullied, that it necessarily means that they are. I received enough emails from managers, both men and women who struggled to cope with “emotional meltdowns ” from female employees. This is something we women have to work on. So try and get into business neutral.

Evaluation of where this treatment lies on this benchmark spectrum is now important. Be realistic and neutrally objective.

Keeping a log of the incidents is one of the most significant things that can be done at this point. What is being established is a pattern of inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour. Most companies have formal channels for communicating performance or job related issues. This is another benchmark. Is the communication stepping outside these channels? If it is, times and dates should be noted. In addition to putting things into context for the victim, an audit trail and timeline for any future grievance or legal process and constructive dismissal is also being established.

Asking for detailed qualification is one sure way of deflecting verbal abuse and criticism in a calm and business neutral way. A common theme was that criticism was often emotive, imprecise and colloquial. Phrases including, heat and kitchens, stepping up, getting in the zone, knowing the door/score etc were commonly used. Counter that with specific questions” How do you suggest… ”

Paraphrasing is another great technique for reaching an understanding ” Have I understood correctly…” Confirming that in writing is essential. We have also learned that there is no point engaging with a bully head on. This is what they love, to bait a victim until they lash out inappropriately or get upset, especially if they have an audience. Then they really have a case against the victim. Somewhat incredulously, I have heard horror stories about computers and email accounts being hacked by bully bosses (as well as lockers and desks). Without seeming too “Nancy Drew” like, I would suggest sending a blind copy of any correspondence to a secure private email account and keeping a hard copy in a safe place outside the office.

Strategic Action
As an ex – corporate HR professional if any employee comes with a dossier of documented instances of abusive or inappropriate behaviour, they know they are obligated to investigate it. They also know there is a potential law suit waiting in the wings. The victim’s fear is of course is that any action will make things worse. If it does, note any further instances of inappropriate behaviour, because this now is really crossing the line into harassment.

There are always solutions and it’s up to us women to find them. Combining traditional coaching techniques to restore confidence, self-esteem and general healing is vital. But there also needs to be a focus on strategies to highlight these issues within organisations in a way that will allow victims to be heard. Decision makers will not only be forced to take note, but to act, before it’s too late for all parties.

Why? Because no one else will!

The Petticoat Polemic: The Role of the Organisation in Bullying

Human ResourcesWomen and workplace bullying. This continues my series, please see the previous posts: Bitch or Bully?The Pink Elephant, The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs and Mascara Mafia:To Debate or Not?

The role of the organisation
This research project has been eye-opening in many ways. So many interesting and contentious points have been raised that it has taken me a while to synthesise them. What do organisations do about this phenomenon? Answer – not a lot!

Human Shield
Organisations it seems are lucky. If they don’t insist on a gagging order as part of a legal settlement, many of the victims who contacted me wanted to protect the identities not only of the perpetrators, but the organisations they worked for. Repeat offending is therefore allowed to go on. As Annabel Kaye told us, despite workplace ethics handbooks the size of a telephone directory, many bullies are not tackled by organisations until the 6th offence. I expected naming and shaming – but not at all. That surprised me.

Additionally when coaching was sought out some programmes encouraged “moving on” from the experience and “letting go”. Although I can see some logic in that for the individual, it may not be helpful to avoid repetition in the future. So even more indirect organisational protection!

Anger at HR
Another ongoing complaint was about the perceived passivity of HR professionals in any support process, to the point where many felt it bordered on enablement.  One important factor to remember is that HR departments work for the organisation – not you.

To give HR professionals a chance to respond and to let us all know where they all were while this bullying was going on , I started a discussion on LinkedIn. The main charge was specifically the need for a formal complaint before any mediation took place. This also produced interesting feedback. Why? Well it seems that HR specialists have their own challenges.

It would appear that organisations want hard facts before any intervention.

Nicola J, HR Manager with a Fortune 500 company, commented ”women in the workplace are in a double bind, but this also applies within the HR function,which in many companies is now a heavily” female” function. When I did step in to support a female bully victim, I was accused of exaggerating and being too “emotional”.

James P, HR Director of a US Investment organisation, told me in a recent case in his organisation of a woman bullying another woman, his intervention produced 3 words ” heat, kitchen, out ” He too it would seem, was accused of a gender based response of being overly “protective” towards a female employee

Senior level acceptance
However, the one consistent comment was that when there is a tolerance of bullying entrenched at senior levels, it is very difficult to deal with directly. Very often the most effective way of tackling it was obliquely .Manmeet Singh Fox, HR Director at SmithBucklin Corporation elaborates “In some cases it’s a matter of finding the workaround rather than going head on with a bully…”

This is indeed also my own observation. Companies create damage limitation policies, only stepping in when the bottom line is badly hit and key positions remain open for extended periods, departmental goals are not being met or when litigation lurks. In other words when business is negatively impacted.

It is really important for any targets of bullying to de-personalise the situation,  get into business neutral and link their experience to the business and the impact of this situation on their performance.

Ideal World
Manmeet suggests that in an ideal world it is in ” the organization’s best interests to proactively influence stakeholders in the senior ranks with data on the impact of the individual’s bullying behavior (turnover, morale, risk of litigation, etc.), providing org-wide training and demonstrating consistent adherence to existing respectful workplace policies, delivering performance goals, reviews and performance improvement plans which specify expectations and measures of desired behaviors… “.

With the increasing economic influence of women in the market place, there has to be a growing imperative to harness that energy into corporate life, otherwise industry and business will be out of touch with their markets. So corporations are surely ignoring this demographic at their peril. But it seems that they do – until they have to.

Gill Weston adds ” Essentially, both the bully and the bullied need help – whether in the form of guidance and counselling, and/or training and mentoring – and HR should ensure that this isn’t just offered, but taken up. And finally, HR should act to uncover the causes of conflict… this needs to be tackled and a culture of harmony restored“

A maelstrom of confusion
The final theme was one of mixed messages in the workplace, but also a maelstrom of both confused and confusing behaviour. Françoise G,HR Director in a French multi-national shared the caveat about the level of false alarms “Women in corporate life also have to retrain themselves to reduce their emotional reactions to certain workplace situations. I am in no way diminishing the impact of systemic bullying, but while some women rush to the bathroom in tears if their work is even mildly criticised or at some other perceived slight, many genuine cases are not taken seriously, because so many cry “wolf”.

Changing corporate culture
So it seems that a priority must be to start changing corporate cultures.

But how?

Beyond the gender bind
With female graduates storming into the workforce at higher rates than ever before, organisations need to learn how to maximise the performance of this significant demographic and set up training systems and workplace practices in response to this development.

  • These young women also need to learn necessary skills to be effective in the workplace, including strategies to neutralise business situations, a.k.a. no more running to the bathroom.
  • The men and women who are already there, need to acquire the training needed to manage and supervise them correctly.
  • HR need to be allowed the neutrality and given the teeth and trusted to act independently outside expected gender roles.
  • But above all corporate leaders need to learn that they can’t ignore these problems and action is required before law suits appear, or negative quarterly results tell them that something is amiss. By then it is already too late.

What do you think?

Mascara Mafia: To Debate Or Not?

This continues my series researching the bullying of women By women in the work place. See my 2 posts to date: Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant and The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs

The response
I originally set out to benchmark a client’s experience. If I had any preconceived notions, they were centred around bullying being a predominantly male activity and simply wanted to investigate corporate checks and balances, as well as any legal deterrents that dealt with this problem. I have to confess that I also secretly hoped to prove the findings of the New York Times wrong. Somewhat predictably, this sadly, was not to be.

My in-box started filling up almost immediately. Broadly speaking the responses fell into 3 categories and can be paraphrased as follows:

  •  Well done Dorothy for highlighting a difficult and sensitive issue which we need to acknowledge and tackle on many levels
  •  What on earth are you thinking Dorothy? Don’t we women have enough obstacles to progression without you dredging up this sort of stuff?
  • – Heart breaking case studies, including what sounded like psychotic abuse in some instances, accompanied by pleas for support

Difficult issue
Yes, the question of the bullying of women is sensitive. As more and more women pursue professional careers ( 60% of European graduates are now female) I actually don’t think that this is a topic we can pretend doesn’t exist. In fact I firmly believe that to do so is not only bad for women, it’s bad for business and organisational success. And it won’t go away on its own.

Annabel Kaye Managing Director or Irenicon Ltd UK tells me that victims of female bullying” leave and find another job without complaining at all. On average we find our ‘complainers’ turn out to be the sixth victim. Others come forward if our people are seen to be gaining ground. However many of our complainers settle quietly, signing ‘gagging clauses’ that mean they cannot testify if others come forward and the problem of bullying is buried once again beneath the surface … but the feeling is that it is healthier to move on rather than fight, which leaves systematic bullies and bullying institutions unchallenged and ready for their next crop of victims.

Are women more susceptible to bullying?
Sharon Eden contends “This is a far more complex situation than gender. Being susceptible to bullying also depends on psychological make-up and culture. People who are raised in families or from cultures where assertiveness is frowned on, and politeness and passivity valued, will be more at risk of being bullied in ‘Western type’ organisations.”

Anne Perschel told me “Boys in most cultures are raised with an expectation that they will be a physical aggressor or defender. This may be in the context of the hunt, an invasion or warding off intruders. Girls are not raised with such expectations. As children our play is in large part rehearsal for future roles. Girls do not rehearse for aggression to the degree that boys do. So in grown up life, when a woman is bullied, she doesn’t have the response repertoire easily available. Bullies feed on this. I’ve seen it. When a bully is on the attack, if the victim backs up in fear, the bully keeps aggressing. There have also been suggestions that testosterone is associated with more risk-taking and aggressive behaviors, so it is possible that biology plays a role as well.”.

Corporate Culture
However, it’s also about the organisational culture and what is perceived to be acceptable. My own experiences have been centred on men bullying men, but when that happened in all 3 cases the CEOs were themselves bullies and this modus operandi had become the corporate cultural norm.

Annabel reminds us that ” Often the perpetrators are oblivious to their behaviour talking about ‘strong leadership’, ‘tough decisions’ when the reality is they demonstrate the opposite. A strong organisation can tackle these issues successfully – but the fish rots from the head and often it is the board themselves that initiate behaviours that stimulate and encourage bullying. The ‘strong’ thrive on challenge – but the ‘weak’ crumble.

Double bind
All the commentators I consulted agreed without exception, that women in the workplace and in leadership positions, or en route, are in a double bind. As Anne suggests “Women are expected not to be aggressive. It’s okay and expected from men. If they lead with emotional and social intelligence, they don’t get as much credit or notice as do men. We expect women to be social, communal, nurturing and supportive of others. We don’t expect it so much from men, so when they behave accordingly, they are viewed as more extraordinary than a woman who exhibits these same behaviors

Skewed view
Is it just me or is there something wrong with this picture?

  • Women emulating assertive male behaviour for advancement in organisations are perceived negatively… and we talk about that.
  • Women not emulating male behaviour, don’t advance, are again perceived negatively … but we talk about that too.
  • Women advancing themselves via “mascara mafia” tactics are actually behaving negatively, very often go unchallenged and …we don’t talk about it very much at all!

Go figure!

Need to highlight

So no, I don’t think that highlighting an issue that negatively impacts women’s perceptions, performance and progression in the workplace should detract from any advances we would like to make in other areas. Neither should it draw attention away from the impact of any other barriers to progression.

In the meantime, women slug it out in sub – board room roles, leading to high job turnover, reduced engagement as well as health issues. Isn’t it understandable how lower level, lower paid, lower stress jobs become attractive options when women have to factor in family considerations?

Where are the men in all of this? Well , they are still sitting pretty at the top. In these positions they will continue to define corporate norms and values and their criteria for what makes a good manager and leader will prevail. In the meantime, women will remain confused and disenchanted, below the glass ceiling.

But as in most cases women have to help themselves and each other to create more secure and meaningful professional lives and business environments, even if it means confronting and finding solutions to eliminate unacceptable behaviour within our own ranks, and putting our own “house” in order. Just as parents who find their teenager has lost his/her way or companies realise they have a product that tanked, it is not the end of the world as we know it. The instances of extreme dysfunctional abuse aside , it’s a problem that can be resolved. There are almost always solutions and we women have to find them.

Why? Because no one else is going to do it for us.

What do you think?

The Lipstick Jungle: Female saboteurs

Bullying of women by women.

Bullying of women by women.

Bullying by Women in the Workplace – Part 2

The sabotaging of women BY women. As part of my series of bullying by women in the work place started in
Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant

I am exploring a number of complex and often confusingly over lapping issues. I have consulted a global network of HR professionals, lawyers, bullying specialists, psychologists as well as executive coaches and leaders.  My LinkedIn poll “Have you experienced bullying in the workplace by a woman?” is still running. Please take it if you haven’t already! Interestingly, although the numbers have been slowly climbing, the percentage analysis has remained consistent . 51% of those polled claim they have personally been bullied by a woman and 25% indicate that they have witnessed it.

These figures reflect all the statistics I have seen elsewhere, dashing my hopes once and for all of disproving their theories. It would seem that despite the increasing number of females in the workplace, many statistics suggest that the business environment has become potentially a more hostile place for many women.

How could this be?
Isabella Lenarduzzi , the founder of Blog Jump, a Belgian organisation for the advancement of women in the workplace makes this comment: “ Studies have shown that relationships can either be the best or the worst thing to happen to women at work: women have a greater capacity than men to affect one another’s professional performance–with better results for all if their interaction is good, and worse results if it is not.”

So what happens when interaction is not good?
Research also shows that women bully other women 2.5 times more frequently than they target men. The bullying weapons of choice in our arsenal tend to be sabotage and the abuse of authority, carried out either subtly or covertly behind closed doors. Women are apparently also more likely to elicit the support of other women, either tacitly or actively, isolating the victim with the creation of a “mascara mafia”, adding further to her distress and feelings of alienation. So our WMD are vocabulary, body language, voice tone, isolation, humiliation and unreasonable or inappropriate demands. You might remember the experiences of my client Jane. Her case it seems is classic text-book and could be taken straight from the syllabus for Bullying 101. The irony is therefore not only are we more likely to be bullied by a man, women are also out ranking men in the harassment of their own gender

Silent Epidemic
This type of bullying, known by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization as the “silent epidemic,” is four times more prevalent than illegal, discriminatory harassment.  Because this type of activity is not illegal, even when complaints are made, HR departments or employers are reluctant to pursue the perpetrator. Very often they know what is going on, but choose to ignore it. As female bullying is usually more covert and does not involve physically abusive, but still no less damaging, it is more difficult to audit and also to prove. Very often (as in Jane’s case) it is accompanied by unsupportive comments about a need to be less sensitive and more assertive. Annabel Kaye Managing Director of UK law firm Irenicon asserts that it can take up to six complaints about the same person to instigate an investigation.

So one bemused question has popped up throughout this research: Isn’t life tough enough for us you ask?

Why do we women sabotage each other?
Sharon Eden offers one explanation:
Sociological research has indicated it seems to be a biological imperative that women compete for the ‘best’ male so that their offspring are more likely to survive. This spills over into the executive suite where men still predominate and some psychologically unaware women wipe out the female ‘opposition’ for male attention

So at some primal sub-conscious level in our lipstick jungle, it would appear that we are clearly brushing down our business suits and sharpening our French manicures in order to compete for the attention of the best males, by annihilating any actual or perceived threats …anyway we can. As these men tend to be found at the top of the pyramid the “battle” intensifies. Research on bully behaviour and harassment at the Workplace Bullying Institute also suggests that regardless of gender, bullying is deeply rooted in insecurity resulting in a need for power and control, with the perpetrator seeking out a perceived weaker employee to dominate. This process actually makes the bully feel better about themselves.

Mary Pearson, who has been writing about bullying for a number of years elaborates “A workplace bully, whether male or female, ensures their intimidation tactics are witnessed. They gain control over a larger group by isolating and victimizing one or two people, more brutally than others. It’s a similar tactic to what a terrorist uses instilling fear in a community through picking a single victim”.

But can it also be that in our desire to get to the top the communication style of women is misunderstood? Can our attempts at being tough turn into bullying? Perhaps we are we caught between the gender stereotyping equivalent of a rock and a hard place. Damned if we do. Damned if we don’t

Isabella suggests ” Women in leadership positions find themselves with an identity dilemma: if they act like a typical male leader, they are perceived as ‘hard’ or ‘cold’, because their behaviour jars with that of the stereotypical woman

Although this goes someway to explaining some aspects of the problem, the “hard ” approach of mimicking male behaviour, it doesn’t cover the type of pernicious and inexplicable treatment that Jane and so many others experience. As Annabel Kayesuggested in my last post, many victims are so ground down, they simply resign.

So while we women bleat endlessly about glass ceilings, timidity at the negotiating table, and under representation in a corporate world, there seems to be very strong indications that in many cases we are actually our own worst enemies. The concentration of females in the corporate population hovers below board level. While there are obviously other legitimate factors preventing advancement, it would seem that part of this blockage is that many women directly sabotage their female colleagues or subordinates and therefore ultimately themselves.

At some point we have to take responsibility for this. The question is how.

What do you think?

Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant

Part I of 5 in my series on bullying by women in the work place.

I am exploring a number of complex and often confusingly over lapping issues. I have consulted a global network of HR professionals, lawyers, bullying specialists, psychologists as well as executive coaches and leaders. I have also heard from ” targets”  themselves.

When does bitchiness, strong or bad management cross the line into workplace bullying?

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a client. I’ll call her Jane. She was struggling to have a successful and equable working relationship with her new boss of 9 months. Her husband thought she needed to ” step up , toughen up and be more assertive”. Whatever was going on was impacting her negatively. She felt she was wearing the departmental scarlet letter, sleeping badly, starting to dread going into work and feeling distanced from her colleagues.

Not only did she feel that she was being singled out for exceptional treatment, but that she was being openly bullied . What had surprised Jane the most in the whole process was that her new boss was a woman.

A can of worms
For me this opened a mental can of worms. What exactly is bullying? Did I really know? When does strong management and bitchiness cross the line into tyranny? How prevalent is the issue of bullying by women? Do we really sweep it under the carpet? Is this issue the pink elephant in our sitting rooms that we don’t talk about?

In my own career I have worked in environments where I have witnessed bullying of the most appalling nature both physical and psychological, so I thought I knew what it was. In one extreme case it led to a complete nervous breakdown, in the other chronic depression leading to heavy drinking and marital breakdown. I have a family member who actually received a written death threat from a senior manager. In many of our minds it’s associated with raging, verbal and physical abuse, Machiavellian sabotaging and back stabbing. I have never been in a situation where the perpetrator was a woman. So where are all those soft skills, empathy and high EQ that we are supposed to have and read about?

Jane’s story :

  • she was  singled out for public criticism about her work and appearance
  • she was regularly called into bosses office at 17.20 to be given additional work with tight deadlines
  • she was excluded from email circulation lists and meetings
  • the only person in the department not invited to a social event at boss’ house
  •  attempts to discuss had been dismissed with contempt
  •  The HR department would only get involved if a formal complaint was made

So what is bullying really?
Annabel Kay of Irenicon offers this legal input about the UK legal system ” Interestingly at the moment there is no actual legal definition in terms of a statute defining it, the ACAS code and case law provide a guide (common law) – but that is it. “

Another lawyer in the US confirmed this ” although harassment has a clear legal definition, bullying does not, only guidelines”.

Jane Perdue suggests that ” Bullying is behavioral based actions that repeatedly humiliate, intimidate, frighten, offend someone, making them feel defenseless, particularly coming from a person in position of authority or with much influence . Acts/behaviors can be overt or covert such as personal attacks or social ostracism. In my view bitchiness crosses the line when it’s repeated, takes on notes of intimidation & becomes a believable threat, particularly from a woman

Annabel goes on to add that “The real problem in dealing with bullying in the workplace is that by the time the ‘victim’ feels desperate enough to complain, they are in no fit state to endure the rigours of formal grievance hearings and appeals and possibly employment tribunals .”

A Poll
The New York Times says that today 70% of cases of women reporting being bullied was by other women. This seemed incredibly high and feeling loyal to the sisterhood, I decided to conduct my own poll on LinkedIn. Have you ever been bullied in the workplace by a woman? Please take a few seconds to participate and read the results to date. It will be open until the end of the April.

Within 24 hours I had over 100 responses and my mail box flooded with stories, insights and perceptions, too many to cover here on the whole issue of female bullying.

In the meantime I am going to collate all the comments and feedback. I have invited leadership specialists, HR practitioners and communication experts to contribute their views over the next few weeks. Here are just a few of your thoughts that have been tossed out to me:

  • If someone feels bullied – does that mean they are, or just being sensitive?
  • When does strong or tough management cross the line into intimidation?
  • Do women feel they have to act like men in, or en route, to leadership positions?
  • Do reports expect female managers to behave differently?
  • Why do women sabotage other women?
  • Are women easier to bully than men?
  • What should the role of HR be in dealing with issues such as this?
  • When does passivity become enabling?

In case you think I’ve forgotten about Jane, this process is ongoing.

What do you think? Workplace bitch or bully? Or are they one and the same?

Part 2: The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs 

Part 3:  The Mascara Mafia   

Part 4: The Petticoat Polemic: the role of the organisation

Part 5: Whatever happened to Jane?