Bullying can occur in all workplaces, including college newsrooms
- Verbal abuse
- Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
- Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done.
- Driven by the perpetrator’s’ need to control the targeted individual(s).
- Initiated by bullies who choose their targets, timing, location, and methods.
- Evolving and expanding, as bullying involves others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion.
- Undermining of legitimate business interests when bullies’ personal agendas take precedence over work itself.
- Akin to domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll.
Source: Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.
When Srdjan Marjanovic ran into his first bully in the newsroom, his training told him he needed to act – and fast. But he wasn’t sure how. In his previous career, professional basketball, Marjanovic would’ve handled it easily. Someone throws an elbow? He throws a bigger one back. Problem solved.
But this bully was no opposing player. It was his boss. And no matter how much he might’ve liked to flex his muscles, Marjanovic knew that wouldn’t work at a college newspaper. So he went to the adviser and explained everything. How the bully ignored his direct questions, ridiculed his thick Serbian accent, dismissed his creative efforts and ran roughshod over the entire outfit.
Before long, a vote came down from the disgruntled editorial staff, which had been building a case of its own to orchestrate an ouster. It was almost unanimous. And like that, the game was over. Victims 1. Bully 0.
Only the victory wasn’t so clear cut. After ruling through fear and intimidation for so long, the bully had run off a lot of talented people and nearly ruined morale. Marjanovic only wishes they’d acted sooner.
“Bullies will try to scare you or push you around, and if you let them, things will only get worse,” says Marjanovic, who graduated last spring after an award-winning run as managing editor and art director with the Hawkeye, the student newspaper at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the basketball court or in the newsroom. You must deal with them right away. You cannot delay or they will take that as a sign of weakness. Timing is everything,” he adds.
Exactly how many staff members of college media have felt the brunt of a newsroom bully is unclear. But if they reflect the greater U.S. workforce, than many have, according to a study by the Workplace Bullying Institute.
In 2010, the Bellingham, Wash., based organization reported that an estimated 53.5 million Americans—about 35 percent of the U.S. workforce—said they’d been bullied at work.
Although the precise number of victims might be an “unknowable statistic,” bullying behavior is simpler to spot.
Dr. Carl Thameling, professor and chair of the communication department at ULM, says to watch for these tell-tale signs:
- Rude, inappropriate behavior
- Undermining the contributions of others
- A win-at-all-cost attitude, especially in disputes or conflicts
“Remember, a bully’s intent is to hurt others,” Thameling says.
They also want total control, and if they get it, they’ll try to create a climate of fear to keep it. But what’s truly compelling this bad behavior is their inherent sense of inferiority, says Dr. James Honeycutt, professor of communication at Louisiana State University.
If this toxic combo seeps into a newsroom, it can poison it – especially when an abusive editor uses his or her authority to harass or to punish the staff just to satisfy some psychological shortcoming.
“The fact is that most excessively dominant people are usually bullies, and deep down, bullies are very insecure people,” says Honeycutt, a distinguished researcher who has studied conflict and verbal aggression in a variety of settings over the last 20 years.
“Bullies try to dominate people because they are too insecure to allow others to have responsibility and influence, and this behavior is conditioned from childhood for one reason or another.”
But where is the fine line separating the real, honest-to-goodness bullies and the strong, assertive personalities who argue forcefully for their ideas? Kelsey Hargrove, a former editor-in-chief of the Hawkeye, uses a simple litmus test.
There is a difference between one who debates and one who berates,” Hargrove says.
Now that she’s heading to Disney World to start her first “real” job after college, Hargrove says she can look back and count herself lucky. She never had to manage a bona-fide bully (and most likely she won’t have to at the “Happiest Place on Earth” either, unless you consider Captain Hook or Cruella DeVille actual employees). But she says she worked with plenty of “assertive personalities” during her tenure at the top, and she can tell a big difference between the two.
“There is a certain amount of respect and good nature toward others that bullies just don’t show,” she says.
Of course, some editors who’ve never managed assertive employees can misread their behavior, mistaking a challenge, a comment or a critique as an act of insubordination. Hargrove urges these editors to remain calm and to try to listen.
“Strong personalities want to be heard. If you show an interest in what they are saying, even if you disagree, they are less likely to become frustrated if they at least know the lines of communication are open,” she says.
Considering how much chaos bullies can cause, newsrooms should avoid hiring them in the first place, Thameling says.
While that might seem easier said than done, job interviews can help screen potential bullies. For example, when questioning candidates, supervisors should be wary of answers that seem self-centered, aggressive, competitive, profane or demeaning toward others, according to Thameling. If a potential hire reveals negative traits early on, it could mean more trouble later, Thameling explains.
Interviewers can screen candidates that seem overly aggressive with a few insightful questions.
“You can ask them to describe their ‘best team player,’ or whose opinion or point of view matters most in an organization,” Thameling says.
In addition, supervisors should be wary of candidates who complain during the interview or blame others for their shortcomings at work.
“I would want to hear them explain how they’re going to excel at their new job, not what happened to cause them to fail at their last one,” Thameling says.
But what happens when bullies successfully conceal their nature and get a foot in the door – or worse, become predator-in-chief? How can employees and advisers alike coexist with these tyrants who need so desperately to control their surroundings and everyone in it? There are at least two ways, and both lie at extremes.
The first is a coping technique Honeycutt calls “catastrophizing.” In this, a person imagines a “worst-case scenario” in which the confronted bully goes off the deep end.
“You mentally rehearse what the bully is going to do so you can prepare for it,” Honeycutt says. By exploring possible outcomes, the rehearsal reduces anxiety and increases the chances of a successful confrontation.
The second method is also extreme. It’s called firing. Easy enough when the offending staffer just writes the occasional story or takes the odd photo. Much trickier as you scale the organizational chart. When a newspaper’s production relies too heavily on the skills or knowledge of just one maladjusted editor, terminating that person can be costly. Still, it’s always an option.
To prepare for this unfortunate eventuality and to prevent bullying in general, organizations can consider rewording their policy manuals. Since most workplaces already have policies against harassment and discrimination, they should have similar ones for workplace bullying, according to Bully OnLine, a website devoted to the topic.
Bully OnLine says an overall policy could introduce reasons why one is needed in the first place – which is chiefly to promote a healthy, safe and productive workplace. The policy could follow with separate chapters on harassment, discrimination, assault and violence, and bullying, among other issues.
But some aren’t entirely sold on this idea, like Cole Avery, the current editor-in-chief of the Hawkeye. In fact, Avery says such policies can be dangerous unless their language is narrowly defined.
“I think some bullying policies can limit discussion because they seem so severe that people might not speak their minds for fear of it being used against them,” he explains.
Instead, Avery favors a kinder, gentler approach and a little old-fashioned common sense.
“I’ve tried to create a workplace where people know I’m approachable,” says Avery, who is returning this fall to helm the Hawkeye one last time after spending this summer interning at a Texas newspaper. “I try to lead by example by being the best at what I do.”
“When I have to give orders, I do it politely, but firmly. It is a workplace, and there are bosses. That doesn’t mean the bosses have to be authoritarians.”
Or throw elbows.
* The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries offers the following document as a framework to prevent workplace bullying. It is online at Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior.
Company X considers workplace bullying unacceptable and will not tolerate it under any circumstances.
Workplace bullying is behavior that harms, intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates an employee, possibly in front of other employees, clients, or customers. Workplace bullying may cause the loss of trained and talented employees, reduce productivity and morale and create legal risks.
Company X believes all employees should be able to work in an environment free of bullying. Managers and supervisors must ensure employees are not bullied.
Company X has grievance and investigation procedures to deal with workplace bullying. Any reports of workplace bullying will be treated seriously and investigated promptly, confidentially and impartially.
Company X encourages all employees to report workplace bullying. Managers and supervisors must ensure employees who make complaints, or witnesses, are not victimized.
Disciplinary action will be taken against anyone who bullies a co-employee. Discipline may involve a warning, transfer, counseling, demotion or dismissal, depending on the circumstances.
The contact person for bullying at this workplace is:
Phone Number: ______________________________________________________
EXAMPLE WORKPLACE BULLYING POLICY
Adapted from The Commission of Occupational Safety and Health, Government of Western Australia (http://www.worksafe.wa.gov.au/newsite/worksafe/media/Guide_bullying_emplo.pdf)