The “Bullies” at Work Finally Beat Down Our Friend, and We Didn’t Do Enough to Help

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Reader’s Question

A very bad situation exists at my job. There is a serial bully there who has two accomplices, and they rule the department I work in by manipulation, intimidation, harassment, and deceit. Confronting any one of them inevitably brings retribution from the other two. Management does nothing about these folks, and this inaction only empowers them. These three characters take long lunches and allow those whom they favor to do the same. The serial bully targets primarily the people with the most tenure and skills by snitching on them for minor things, even if the complaints are unfounded. Meanwhile, members of the evil trio break the rules without consequence.

In 2004, S joined the company. He was 36, single and lived alone. During his first years he worked late shifts for management, developing new hires when others wouldn’t. He worked hard and was a rising star. S was sharp, selfless, and unbelievably smart. He became the trio’s new favorite target. S tried to work with everyone, including the bullies who never let up on him. If the bullies did something right, he lauded them. But when they targeted others unfairly, he defended their targets. As a result of his fairness and popularity, he became a target himself. The trio eventually recruited conspirators to try and get S fired. He found out and submitted a formal complaint. Our supervisor was subsequently transferred, and S’s complaint disappeared along with the supervisor’s transfer.

A new supervisor came on board. S asked that his complaint be followed up, but the new supervisor new nothing of it. Word leaked, and before you know it the serial bully was complaining to HR that the new supervisor was incompetent. Meanwhile S was encouraging others, including the bullies, to help the supervisor learn his new position. But when S caught one of the bullies’ favorites submitting months of false data inflating her efficiency, the supervisor let it go and didn’t appreciate S’s honesty. Because he was starting to look bad, and to curry favor with the bullies who have the real power in our department, the supervisor then started cleverly and subtly dismantling S’s reputation, while acting supportive on the surface. This eventually took a toll on S, who started having headaches, insomnia, and other signs of stress. He had a lot of anger and frustration but never expressed it openly. Yet, the supervisor branded S with an “Anger Issue.” S took 2.5 years worth of documentation to HR but they refused to review them, saying that he was obsessed and that having a stack of documentation only proved that.

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S eventually told a peer that he called EEOC and a lawyer, but no one believes he’s actually done so. He tearfully told one person that he felt abandoned, betrayed by his co-workers, the company, and society, and asked to be simply left alone. It’s almost 3 years since he filed his original complaint with no results. Now, he just keeps to himself. A few people have stopped by, but he won’t even answer his door.

In the meantime, the serial bully has let it be known that she has some disabling conditions, and everybody thinks the company let her get away with all the things she’s done over the years out of fear that she would sue if they did anything to her or got rid of her. None of us thinks that she has any of the conditions she claims because we see absolutely no signs or symptoms of them. Besides, that wouldn’t explain or excuse her behavior over the years. She appears simply to be a bully. She is a calculating ring leader, but now that her behavior is finally coming to light she wants to be seen as a victim.

Our supervisor has a psychology degree and should have been much more astute about things. To us, this makes him even more guilty than the rest of us for not helping S. We all feel bad that we didn’t do enough to help him and want him to get some justice. Perhaps we can help find a lawyer who’ll listen to him. What else can we do?

Psychologist’s Reply

Power politics is a fact of life not only in government but also in the workplace. And aggressive personalities often band together to dominate and control the work environment. I have a lot to say about how they do that in my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Such personalities often thrive because of an “enabling” corporate environment. The operating principles and values a corporation advances start at the top.

Fortunately, ultimate real power in any organization resides in those who make the company work. And there is increased power when people of principle band together for a noble cause. There’s strength in numbers. Although you and your cohorts might feel some guilt for not having done enough in the past to support your friend, there’s still a lot you can do. Bearing witness to any injustice that occurred as well as testifying to the true nature of his character will go a long way to helping him get back on his feet.

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