Employer Branding

Are Bullies More Successful at Work?

In the recruiting and HR space, it’s pretty rare to find a post that promotes bullying at work. After all, most of us spend a great deal of time at work and it’s definitely no fun getting pushed around. But what if bullies are more inclined to experience success at work? Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants?

I decided to see if I could find out after reading a headline piece on LinkedIn by Jonah Berger. Berger posted that Miley Cyrus’ twerking, off-key “performance” was possibly a good career move, since the singer now boasts the most tweeted live event EVER. If bad behavior begets bad publicity, then might bad behavior also beget increased (financial) rewards at work? I was wondering this very thing when I came across a story about the team at PandoDaily over on ValleyWag, namely head reporter Sarah Lacy, who I had the opportunity to meet at one point (side note: she seemed very nice).

However, this story (which used real emails and comments from Sarah herself) painted her as strident and aggressive at best, and a downright threatening bully at worst. As comments on the story started to pour in, it was apparent that this was not an isolated incident. But by all accounts, Sarah Lacy is quite successful.

As are other people like Donald Trump, Naomi Campbell, Steve Jobs, Omarosa, and Lance Armstrong. Does the very fact that these people are unapologetic, aggressive and uncompromising make them super successful?

A study from the University of Buffalo (claiming to be the first that correlates bullying with job performance) seems to prove that bullying tendencies are only part of the equation:

…when bullying and political skill were combined, there was a strong correlation with higher performance, backing up their hypothesis that “politically skilled bullies are able to use their bullying behavior to build broad coalitions of supporters and pools of resources that will facilitate their own job performance.

The truth is that while more than half of US employees have experienced bullying in the workplace, it only seems like that if you’re one rung under the active aggressor, simply put, it only feels like bullying if you are a colleague of the bully (or somewhere lower on the org chart). That is because:

unlike the stereotypical social misfit who ends up the school bully, workplace bullies are often charming and socially skilled.

– Jena McGregor

And no one wants to confront them either. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 50 percent of workers don’t report bullying they see or experience. Why? Because it’s difficult to run up against someone behaving badly and potentially get on their bad side and become bullying targets themselves. Unlike what many of us were taught, these people rarely get what they deserve, often getting promoted or rising much higher in the ranks than their less assertive peers.

In an Harvard Business Review article, one story talks about one employee who went out of his comfort zone to report a bully at his job, only to have the employee promoted over him. He had a heart attack three days later. It’s a tale as old as time for workers who have spent their time in the trenches watching bullies get promoted:

It’s an especially insidious cycle: The results of workplace intimidation, harassment, and other forms of bullying are often enough jobs well done, which lead not to rebuke but rather to strong reviews, pay raises, and even promotions. “Bullies often leverage the fear and intimidation of their behavior to achieve their personal goals and improve their job performance,” the authors of the JMP study, which was led by Darren C. Treadway of SUNY-Buffalo and Brooke A. Shaughnessy of the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

How do you deal with bullies at work? Let us know in the comments below!

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By Maren Hogan

Maren Hogan is a seasoned marketer and community builder in the HR and Recruiting industry. She leads Red Branch Media, a consultancy offering marketing strategy and content development.