Bullying in business: how a freelance writer copes

medium_2512997167 (1)My earliest experience of a business bully was in my first ever job after leaving art school, having graduated from there after having completed a journalist apprenticeship. Although none of it was university stuff, by then I had been educated to within an inch of my life. Venturing into the business world as “advertising executive” for this company, I approached the Monday sales meetings with more than a little trepidation.

Justified? Oh, yes. Yes, yes. Head honcho made Attila The Hun look like Mary Poppins and no-one, but no-one, escaped his wrath on those Monday mornings unless sales the previous week had been utterly astounding.

One time I asked permission to return to my office to fetch my (forgotten) glasses and he shouted “no!” Scared out of my wits but determined not to be intimidated, I said “sorry, but I really need my glasses” and left the room to fetch them. Interestingly he didn’t bitch at my impudence. Bully #1 in a nutshell.

A bully no more

Interestingly enough, I got to know Bully #1 quite well through mutual friends, over the years, long after I had left the job and moved on. He was one of these charismatic entrepreneurs who made millions, lost them all, made them again, lost them again, drank up to two bottles of Scotch a day plus chain-smoked cigars, and unsurprisingly found himself aged 50, flat broke, with advanced throat cancer.

Not long before he died he and I had dinner together and we talked, openly, honestly and with humility, about each others’ lives. I took him home after the meal, returned to my home and cried. Why? Because at last he had had the courage to be himself with me. That’s a lot harder than shouting and ranting. Poor guy died a few weeks later.

Bully for you in the voluntary sector

Fast forward a number of years and a good few Big Bad Bullies in various shapes and forms, most of whom were legends in their own lunchtime and used their abilities to shout down the rest of us in whatever business teams we were, to drive their own stuff forward.

Once I was involved with a group in the voluntary sector in the UK. When I first joined the group it was chaired by a nice, outspoken and no-nonsense man who after years of trying to figure out how to cut through the red tape sensibly decided to give up and move on to other pursuits.

Cue another man, one of the very few men in the group, to step in and take over as Chairman. There was no election or consultation, of course; no-one else in the group was interested in contesting the role and because I had only just joined myself, I was hardly qualified for the job (although ironically I am now Chair.)

The danger of being over-qualified for the job

small__3753028247Having been a very senior civil servant this man sought to elevate our relatively humble group to greater things, and wasted hours of everyone’s time lecturing us on his meticulously devised plans for the group to undertake world domination.

Without boring you with a catalogue of his aspirations, I dared to question his values one time when he announced that he was not prepared to share information discussed at a meeting which he attended as the group’s representative. This was because the information was sensitive and only suitable to be discussed among professionals and people more qualified than our group’s rank and file.

In the ensuing cat fight (carried on with just him, me and a witnessing third party desperately wishing she was elsewhere) he pleaded, evangelically, that when he was working in his public sector job he had been known to be a “tough guy,” but he had made a huge effort to “run” this group much more kindly.

Temper, temper…

Taureans like me are very slow to anger but when the explosion comes it tends to channel that of a small thermonuclear device. I lost my rag with this man and asked him why he thought anyone should “run” a group of volunteers: surely as Chair you support and lead, but you leave the running to corporate bosses and government mandarins. How dare he assume he was “running” a group of volunteers whose only reason for putting up with his autocratic nonsense was pure goodwill and good manners?

With that, he announced his resignation with immediate effect and tearfully bad farewell to the other members of the group (most of whom were not disappointed to see him go) while simply glaring at me. Suddenly I saw a man whose emotions had forgotten to grow up; he was 60 years old going on 12. This time I didn’t cry at the departing downfall, but it taught me a lot about human nature as I watched the fearful intellectual bully crumble into a sniveling, spiteful child.

How many business bullies are still getting away with it?

Because I’ve nearly always been freelance as a writer I haven’t had to put up with that many business bullies for more than a few weeks or months, thank Heavens, but I know that bullying in the workplace is hideously common and in fact know personally a number of people who have been victims of it.

Several of those had to have time off due to stress, or chose to give up what would otherwise be excellent jobs because they were shuffled out and couldn’t prove constructive dismissal.

In large corporate organizations and public sector departments, often there is too much invested in these bullies to get rid of them – or at least move them somewhere they can’t use as a bullying base – and so the supremo bosses have to keep them in post despite their stamping all over subordinates. In smaller organizations, this can apply too but is much more of a disruptive force than in a large environment where you can at least get away from the bully more easily.

Sadly, bullies are everywhere from the nursery to the nursing home. What can be done in a business context, especially for people like freelance writers? What experience have you had of business bullies?

While you’re here, don’t forget to stop by my Bookshop…books and eBooks to help you write better – and to give to friends and family…

photo credit: Chesi – Fotos CC via photopin cc
photo credit: joncandy via photopin cc

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