CIO spotlight: The IT bullying problem that needs more attention

Why IT leaders must be ready to see the signs of workplace bullying

“It was very manipulative and subtle,” says Alex [false name], “complete psychological and mental bullying. It was awful. And it wasn’t [just] a mental health issue. It was a physical thing. One day I literally started hemorrhaging blood…”

It is at this point that the naysayers will often step in. If it is female being described she would be casually dismissed as “emotional” and most likely “always running to HR”. If it is a male, this it would be the moment to give a kind of appalled snort: clearly he should “man up” and learn to deal with “tough management”.

Yet throughout our conversation, it is plain to see that Alex is extremely bright and analytical; not overtly weak or emotional.  This is a firm, likeable and very self-possessed person. And still, although this happened five years ago, Alex is only starting to get over the experience now.

Our report aims to shed light on bullying in the tech industry. Check out: Bullying: The Uncomfortable Truth About IT


22% of IT professionals have taken time off for stress

The latest research from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), released in June 2017 [PDF] shows 19% of adult Americans “have suffered abusive conduct at work”. And Dr. Namie, Director of WBI and widely regarded as North America’s foremost authority on workplace bullying, has stressed that figures would have been far higher, if he was less stringent with the definition.

Bullying is extremely hard to define. It can cover a raft of abusive behavior, from obvious horribleness, such as shouting, hectoring and physical maltreatment. Right through to a devious spectrum of Machiavellian, psychological techniques, designed to break the victim from the inside. This can include too much work, too little work, ill-defined expectations, constantly changing the goal posts, along with the usual schoolyard fare of whispering in corners and making people feel worthless.

There is no overt legislation against it, and not only is it difficult to prove, it often takes the recipient a long time to realize it is really happening.  “I was paranoid. I had depression,” explains Alex. It had a terrible effect on me. To the point where it made me question my sanity.”

There is some evidence to suggest that whilst this problem exists everywhere, things might be worse in tech. In 2008 Computer Weekly produced an article which stated that the “IT profession is blighted by bullying”. Based on research from the UK Trade Union, Ignite, this showed that out of 860 IT professionals surveyed “65% believed they had been bullied at work, and 22% had taken time off work because of stress caused by bullying.”

Sam [false name], a senior IT professional I consulted, agreed with a lot of the findings but demurred: “To me it is not bullying, but sheer incompetence, and cronyism. Lack of openness and accountability at the top, micro-management and over-scrutiny, a lack of appropriate training and HR being useless. I have seen it, wondered how bad it can be - then experienced worse.”


Steve Jobs is the poster boy for bullying in IT

It is extremely difficult to pinpoint issues within IT as a whole because the community is non-cohesive. There are those who work in tech companies - in a range of capacities - and those who work in IT, in a wide range of industries. Yet many people agree that, like teaching and nursing, the tech industry itself, is particularly riddled with bullying.

Steve Jobs is the poster boy of both tech entrepreneurialism and bully-boy tactics. Dr. Namie believes his example is fairly common. “The narcissism of the tech entrepreneurs is excessive. The type of personality who starts these kinds of companies are very tough to deal with. They’re quite full of themselves and they’re not about democracy or inclusion. So, they’re natural bullies. But the media will never call them bullies because they’re seen as geniuses and they’re the inventors of our era.”

As late as this April, Jobs’ bullying made the news (again), as tech workers appealing to the legal system about Google, Adobe, Intel and Apple’s alleged conspiracy to keep workers’ wages low were asked to refrain “from unfairly portraying Jobs as a “bully” at the trial.” Cult of Mac reported “the companies said they don’t want the court to ban all of the Jobs evidence, just stuff gleaned from sources like Walter Isaacson’s biography that paints Jobs in a bad light.”

“A tech firm is like a dysfunctional alcoholic family where the parent is the drunk,” says Dr. Namie. “The poor family. Nobody else drinks but they all have to walk on eggshells. People check their dignity at the door in those kinds of companies. They live a deferred life because the sun is burning so brightly at the top of the company and everyone else is supposed to be a bunch of nothings. It is sickening. Our biggest task at WBI is trying to get people to understand they deserve more.”

He feels fundamentally, this stems from two factors: “[The first is] there is no boundary between home and work. The second is work pace.”

“Those two [factors] combined, make that industry so bullying prone, it is pure chaos. And people who get into it initially get a buzz form it, but they are human wrapped in the technology experiment [and] they underestimate the fact that biologically our stress response is way behind our technological need to innovate.”

Alex however, isn’t sure if bullying is worse in the tech industry than in others: “I’ve only ever worked in tech and so, I don’t know, I wouldn’t be able to comment. [What I do know though is] I wanted to have a career. And the industry is small. You don’t want to be seen as a trouble maker. You think: people will badmouth me.”

Sam, who holds a senior position in a large, traditional IT company, describes personal experiences as: “a classic tale of incompetence, [the] old boys club looking out for each other [and] HR being utterly useless. [These people] get promoted because they are safe and can be trusted, not because they are competent.”

“Not sure it is specific to IT-industry though? I believe this happens everywhere. There is a ‘leadership deficit’ in the world, in companies, in politics, everywhere.”


Leadership needs to be held accountable not HR

“All of the business articles think that bullying is an HR issue,” says Dr. Namie. “It is not, it is a leadership problem because they establish the culture. HR does not establish the culture. So it should not be handled by HR, it should be handled at a leadership level. HR is the worst place to go. They are terrible in the States. ‘Feckless’ is the word I would use.”

Pam Farmer, an independent HR Professional, who runs consultancy firm Change Map and has 10 years’ experience of workplace bullying, agrees with this, to a certain extent: “It is critically important for the HR managers in the organization to be fully confident that the bullying/workplace behavior/conduct policy can be implemented and that they can run an investigation which is fair and free from interference.”

“Many HR people, 'HR Business Partners', can be too close to the business and do not stand sufficiently apart from line managers,” she continues. “They either see the complainant as a problem to be managed away or are themselves afraid of being victimized.  The HR community in general needs to recapture an independent position in this particular area.”

Both Dr. Namie and Pam Farmer stress that the organizational culture establishes a bullying environment. Farmer says “negative workplace behavior can happen anywhere, in any profession and at any level. Yet she lists a series of factors that make this worse: poor standard setting; a high degree of change or pressure; a poorly understood or implemented performance system; poorly selected managers; and of course, limited opportunities to find other jobs.

Dr. Namie has run his organization for 17 years and feels that companies should “care more” about the problem. However, they “either like the bully, they are afraid of the bully or they are the sponsor of the bully. In one way shape or form they are letting this go on and on.”

This tallies with Alex’s experience. The bully was a person in a senior position; he was head of the UK office, who remained unmanaged and unchecked by the business. This led to a top-down culture, where bullying was condoned throughout the rungs of his team.


The bully and the bullied tend to have very different personalities

In extremely simplistic terms Dr. Namie believes these problems in the workplace stem from ideological differences. The people who are focused doing a good job are a very different breed to the people who are preoccupied with the career ladder. In black and white terms this is the political people vs. the non-political people: “the ones who care about the work and the ones who care about personal agenda.”

“That is the major distinction,” he explains. “The bullies are driven by their agenda. They fill their days with political dealings [usually] to the detriment of the company. So it is never about work getting done. It is never about being a tough boss, it is about getting it done for me.”

The people that tend to be targeted fit a profile too he says: “[They tend to be] a strong worker, a veteran worker and a technically skilled worker.”

“The target of bullying is a highly studied area,” agrees Farmer. “It may be that the bullied target is very good at their job, is anxious about their job, or speaks their mind, or is an independent thinker [there are] a whole variety of reasons.  Self-confident people who are viewed as 'strong' by others, can be targets for bullying.”

The best book written on the subject, “Bully in Sight”, is by Tim Field: a man who suffered a mental breakdown after being bullied in the IT workplace and died tragically young. In this he explains: there are “many reasons” why a person is selected for bullying but the two that “stand out head and shoulders above the rest are: being good at your job, often excelling; [and] being popular with people.”

This can, of course, manifest itself in a few different ways. Employees can bully managers. Peers can pick on peers. Yet in the words of Field: “Most cases of bullying occur when a manager uses the opportunity of position to bully a subordinate.”

“To try and convince someone that is thoroughly competent that they’re incompetent is a very cruel act,” says Dr. Namie. “A lot of time is spent doing that: they have the audacity to crawl inside someone’s head and tell them who they are, rather than letting people be who they are.”

”Bullies don’t come to us for study. But we meet them when we do consulting and – [if you] remember the narcissism, you won’t go wrong.” Delroy Paulus of Colombia University has identified the dark triad [pdf] of personality traits that normally show destructive people,  explains Dr. Namie, although sadism has subsequently been added.  

These people are (on a sliding scale) narcissistic, psychopath-like, (in that that they tend to lack remorse) and Machiavellian. “Look at that package - these are the people who are willing to meddle with others,” he continues. “They fill their days with political gamesmanship. And the other people, the targets, come to work to do their job.

“[For the bullies] climbing the ladder is all of their work. It is their focus. It becomes a zero-sum game where they must obliterate all competition. They see co-workers as competition as opposed to peers, or a possible pool of friends. They see them as someone to dupe, overcome and climb over. And it is just Machiavellian. And some people don’t have that view at all. They’re co-corporative. They’re nice. They’re kind. The targets are in that group.

“[For the bullied] the trauma comes from a destruction of their world view. [They believe]: If I work hard I’ll be recognized and I’ll be paid adequately and I can stay and do what I love, but they are cruising for bruising. If they fall into a workplace where they are arbitrarily assigned to one of these cruel people life for them is just horrible.”


Individuals who are bullied become ostracized by their peers

The picture that emerges of the workplace is pretty bleak. “There are studies which show that the kind or altruistic worker is the one the group expels first. Because they can’t stand the fact that they set such a high moral standard. We’re afraid of the real people,” says Dr. Namie. “We’re scared to make friends with people [in the workplace].”

It is certainly true that ostracism is a big part of the experience of being bullied. “People outside the bullying situation and in the immediate environment (colleagues) are often fully aware of the bullying going on but 'do not believe it is my business' to intervene or raise the issue to anyone who could intervene,” says Farmer.

“The reasons are complex and research is being carried out into why bystanders remain on the side lines. My experience indicates that bystanders are willing to raise their concerns only if the organization has clearly come out against bullying and that the bystander feels that they will not also be victimized or bullied,” she continues.

“I lost all my friends there,” says Alex. “People close ranks the moment they get frightened. And you become an outsider. People stopped talking to me which was terrible.” Everyone knows that social ostracism hurts, yet as Dr. Namie explains: “From functional MRI studies [pdf] we know it is genuine pain.”


Workplace bullying needs to get more attention

The lack of clear definition, and deficit in legislation, makes workplace bullying extremely difficult pinpoint, let alone tackle. On top of which, people often turn inwards, blame themselves, or refuse to accept anything is happening at all.

“People need to know that they don’t need to take it,” says Dr. Namie but the terrible truth is “if they’re the sole wage earner they can’t move lightly.”

This is a serious problem that we all need to be aware about. It runs rampant through many organizations, poisoning whole teams from the inside. Whilst for the victim, bullying causes massive physical and psychological distress, leading individuals to doubt their entire work identity. This, in turn, fundamentally impacts their life and career; many feel they will never get another job again.

“Some people don’t come through it,” says Alex. “It is scary. I say to my children: you have to respect people. I’m a manager and you have to respect people and see them as a person. He didn’t care. He was awful. And I was a gibbering wreck.”