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Reverse Bullying: When Managers Feel Intimidated By Their Subordinates

December 26, 2023by Barbara Flynn0

By Paul Falcone


Managers have been well-trained on what discrimination, retaliation, harassment and bullying look and feel like in the workplace. But “reverse bullying” often gets short shrift, even though it is just as real.

Subordinates have been known to “intimidate upward,” making their managers afraid to hold them directly accountable for their actions. And managers have often turned a blind eye to inappropriate workplace behaviors in order to avoid confrontation at all costs. Intimidating a manager can in fact become some workers’ standard operating procedure, no matter how many new managers come their way. In fact, their defiance and audacity may cause all but the most self-assured and confident managers to back off.


“Why won’t management manage her out?” may be the core question on team members’ minds regarding an individual who appears to get special or favored treatment for bad behavior. “No matter how many managers come and go, she seems to get a free pass every time, almost as if she knows where the bodies are buried and has some ‘invisible hand’ protecting her. In fact, we could all leave, but she’ll be the last one standing when all is said and done.”


The problem, of course, is that tolerating rude, condescending or confrontational behavior sends a message to the rest of the organization that your department or team permits inappropriate workplace conduct if committed by certain favored people. “Nothing kills team camaraderie more than a situation where ‘negative favoritism’ appears to plague an entire department but is unaddressed for long periods of time,” said Jeff Nowak, a management-side employment attorney at Littler in Chicago. “You can’t expect others to respect your department if such behavior is permitted to go unaddressed, as it could likely lead to excessive turnover, workers’ compensation stress claims, low net promoter scores and copycat behaviors on your team that create a race to the bottom in terms of unacceptable conduct.”


Variations on a Theme


Such behavior may take many forms. The worker with a “sparring” personality strikes back whenever a possible corrective comment comes his way. That individual tends to be quick-witted and able to deflect responsibility in almost all cases. Managers who may not feel quite as razor-sharp in their comebacks back away or at least require more time to formulate a response. By then, the corrective moment may have passed and any further mention of the incident could be interpreted as a personal dislike for the individual, as if the manager is unreasonable and looking for a reason to find fault with that person.

Meanwhile, “little black book” workers threaten co-workers and managers with lawsuits if they think anyone is trying to take advantage of them or intimidate them. They threaten to write people’s names next to their lists of events and dates that they will share in their legal actions. Others claim discrimination is to blame for a manager’s critique of their work: “My manager simply wants me out because I’m highly paid and because of my age/race/gender/disabled status.” And don’t forget about the pre-emptive strike of “pretaliation,” where a worker complains to HR about their manager’s conduct before the manager has a chance to complain about the employee’s job performance. Such actions could place managers on the sharp end of the investigation spear, focusing HR on the manager’s alleged misconduct rather than the employee’s poor performance or behavior.


The Situational Turnaround


“The consequences of inaction on the organization and on that particular manager may be great,” Nowak explained. “Often, nothing is put in writing, leaving no legal record in place that documents the problem, resets expectations or points to the disciplinary consequences of not improving the situation at hand. This can spell trouble for the company in the litigation arena, where plaintiffs’ attorneys may argue that it ‘couldn’t have been so bad’ if the organization never felt it necessary to escalate the matter in writing—either in a free-standing letter, an annual performance review or through progressive discipline.”


Deborah Birndorf Zeiler, a partner and employment attorney at Norton Rose Fulbright in Los Angeles, said managers have to take a stand. “Management cannot refuse to involve itself when an employee is behaving improperly. In fact, the law imposes a duty on supervisors to take action,” she said. “If a manager or supervisor fails to take appropriate action, the employer may be liable. Because bullying can easily be interpreted as harassment, discrimination or retaliation, supervisors have a legal obligation to intercede and report the misconduct. If a manager is the victim of the bullying behavior, it is imperative that the manager report the behavior and seek assistance from the company’s HR department to manage—and more importantly, to document—the situation.”


Get Help from HR, Others when Responding


If a manager finds it difficult to respond to the employee with the quick comebacks and defensive self-justification for ongoing rude or antagonistic behavior, the manager should hold a meeting with the individual with a witness in the room—preferably the manager’s boss, department head and/or HR. Explain the situation this way:


“Molly, I’ve asked Ebony, our department head, to join me in this meeting with you to discuss your behavior at times toward me and other members of the team. I’ve found that when I bring matters to your attention, you’re quick to defend yourself, typically find fault in others for whatever that problem is, and quickly go on the offensive, making me feel like you’re attacking me when the complaint is about you and your conduct. As such, you have a significant perception problem on your hands. You’re responsible for your own perception management, just like I am and everyone else is.


“I’ll provide three examples separately in a moment, so that Ebony can hear from you directly about your side of the story and your accounting of those specific events. But I want to be clear: I consider your behavior at times to be confrontational, combative and condescending toward me as your manager. Those happen to be the same words and complaints used by your co-workers about your behavior towards them. Our goal in meeting with you today is to clarify our expectations regarding your conduct and ensure that you understand the future consequences if this situation doesn’t turn around immediately.”


You should likewise let Molly know that HR is aware that this meeting is occurring and that she is welcome to meet with them separately if she feels that would be appropriate. When the immediate manager and their boss meet with Molly, there are two levels of management involved, which limits Molly’s ability to pit one against the other. This likewise minimizes her ability to launch a pre-emptive strike about her direct supervisor’s behavior, while leaving HR as an available third party of appeal should she seek to escalate her case internally. In the instance of the employee who keeps account of what he perceives as unjustified attacks, simply respond this way:


“Liam, you’re more than welcome to keep notes in a little black book or some other format when you feel that you’re being treated poorly at work. However, there are two guidelines that I’ll ask you to follow: First, share those incidents with me as your manager or with HR in real time as they occur. It doesn’t help anyone for you to keep a list of situations that you see as problematic without doing anything about it at the time. For example, sharing issues from two years ago that you never brought to anyone’s attention doesn’t help you and doesn’t help us because the information is stale by then.


“Second, and more important, you’re no longer permitted to reference that little black book, carry it, leave it on your desk where others can see it, or hold it up as a ‘reminder’ to others under any circumstances. To do so would likely come across to your co-workers as an act of hostility on your part, making them afraid to do their jobs for fear of a personal lawsuit coming their way. In short, it could potentially create a hostile, offensive or intimidating work environment in its own right, which we can’t allow. In fact, it could trigger a final written warning for egregious misconduct if it were to happen again.


“Let me know your thoughts about these two directives that I’m sharing with you and what questions you have. More importantly, I’m going to ask for a commitment from you right now that we’ll not have to hold a discussion like this about the little black book again in the future. Can you make that commitment to me?”


When dealing with employees who appear to create a hostile and intimidating work environment but constantly blame others, even their immediate supervisors, it’s time to step in wisely.  Line up your supporters—namely, your immediate manager and HR—and meet with the individual with a witness present (again, either your immediate supervisor or human resources business partner). Consider placing the findings from the meeting in some type of written format to share with the employee to codify your discussion as well as your go-forward expectations, either in the form of a letter of clarification, memorandum of understanding, or same-day summary.  Should any future violations occur, the organization has a clear path forward toward formal progressive discipline, no matter how many years of tenure the employee has or how long those behaviors have gone unaddressed in the past.

Barbara Flynn

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