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Vicarious Bullying, Dealing With Multiple Bullies On Staff

Vicarious Bullying, Dealing With Multiple Bullies On StaffStanley was in disbelief once again. His boss’s administrative assistant, Karol, burst in his office barking orders.

“You know Mr. Thyme wants it this way! He will send this back!” Stanley just stayed still and let Karol get her assault out of her system.  The assistant was only 24,  an Ivy grad, who didn’t quite make the cut to medical school. Karol seemed to enjoy being the one to lower the hammer.  She started only 10 months ago, buddied up to the boss, and now just a terror with a clipboard.

Stanley also noticed that in Karol’s ten months, she emerged as the office henchman. She got an office with a window and extra vacation time.  Not only did Karol get to join Mr. Thyme on the annual junket to Hawaii, rumor has it that Karol also got a salary bump.

Other office members complained about Karol’s reign of terror.  They all knew Mr. Thyme was horrible, but Karol apparently stepped up her game, yelling at colleagues twice her age, threatening to dock pay if deadlines were missed.  Instead of having one bully in Mr. Thyme, the abuse had multiplied through Karol and her antics.

Stanley and his officemates were experiencing vicarious bullying, when a primary bully sends a subordinate to carry out the abuse.  Much like dictators through history had henchmen, bullies sometimes adopt subordinates to do their bidding.  The subordinate bully, or henchman, is rewarded with raises, favors and additional privileges (Hollis, 2017).  The office staff is left dealing with two or even more bullies who engage is this psychological and emotional abuse.  The result is a toxic environment that leads to high staff turnover, and dwindling productivity.  No one wants to report to a war zone.

Stanley realizes that not only did the office have a horrible bully in Mr. Thyme, Karol was taking up the mantle. What could they do?

In the United States, workplace bullying is still legal.  At least a third of American workers will deal with the behavior sometime in their careers.  To fight the bully, Stanley and his colleagues would need to find a way to balance out the power differential.

  • A small group of colleagues could go to Human Resources to join a complaint.  They would need to have specific times and dates of abuse.  However, note, HR is seldom a good remedy for bullying. They just are not charged by law or administration to intervene.
  • The group could go to the bully’s boss, reporting incidents and giving examples.  They could offer a vote of no confidence.  This strategy works if the bully’s  boss is empathetic and concerned. An apathetic or aloof boss will be annoyed with these reports.
  • The group can lead a campaign for an anti-bullying policy company-wide.  Such a strategy could work if the policy development includes people from across the company AND the company is willing to enforce it.
  • Individuals can start and continue a job hunt. There is no shame in protecting one’s health from an abusive boss and leaving the company.

Nonetheless, with the exception of leaving, first three options require specific examples and a group of people to balance the power differential.  In any case, workplace bullying can lead to anxiety attacks, insomnia, PTSD, and other stress-related maladies.  To learn more about workplace bullying, visit Dr. Hollis’ online research archive at  https://morgan.academia.edu/LeahHollis.

Read more posts by Leah Hollis, Ed.D. here. Leah is a contributing blogger for JenningsWire.

Hollis, L.P. (2017). Higher Education Henchmen: Vicarious bullying and disenfranchised populations. Advanced Social Sciences Research Journal. 4 (12). 64-73.