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Stop Bullies From Trashing Your Firm

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Have you ever wondered how some people can be charming on the outside but bitter on the inside? Years ago I read a book that referred to these individuals as “charismatic manipulators.” In today’s parlance, we call them bullies.

The recent brouhaha surrounding Jonathan Martin, the NFL player who left the Miami Dolphins after accusing teammate Richie Incognito of bullying, brought this issue to light once again. For the more diminutive among us, it’s hard to imagine how a 300-pound offensive lineman could be intimidated in such a circumstance. The reality is that victims and jerks exist in all kinds of work, and physical strength often is not enough to bring a bully down.

In this case, as in many situations that involve bullying, the harassment was not physical. Bullying in the workplace takes many forms: repeated undeserved criticism, micromanagement, jokes targeting a specific individual, dismissal of another’s point of view, practicing favoritism—the list goes on. This abuse of power undermines an organization’s culture, prevents effective teamwork, inhibits productivity and causes costly employee turnover.

Bullies permeate the financial services industry. Movies about Wall Street perpetuate the stereotype, portraying brash, vulgar and disrespectful behavior as the norm. Before I moved from Seattle to New York for my current position, I was warned about this behavior, though it may surprise some that I find New Yorkers to be friendlier than Seattleites. In truth, the bullying found in the center of the financial universe is no more shocking than what I have witnessed within Main Street firms. Destructive behavior exists in small towns and huge cities, in tiny firms and big banks.

I have worked with hundreds of business owners (including a number of my own partners) over my career, and have had the distinct displeasure of engaging with many who use verbal abuse, intimidation and manipulation to get their way. While some of us can walk away from these relationships when they become intolerable, most employees and partners find it very difficult.

Ironically, this unhappy dynamic seems especially common among family members in a business. Too often I see advisory firms that were founded by a dominant personality turn into hostile environments for spouses and kids. These dysfunctional firms often contain an advisor’s son or daughter who has been elevated in title but diminished in status by Mom or Dad. The other employees observe the disrespect and bad feelings, and a vicious cycle of bullying continues down the line.

When consulting with advisors about the negative culture in their firms, I found that many were in denial about their own bullying. In their minds, they were “tough but fair” bosses.

In his terrific book “How Will You Measure Your Life?,” Clayton Christensen argues that hiring motivated people, matching them to the right jobs and eliminating distractions will produce the desired outcome from employees. He said that when key factors such as status, job security and work conditions are not right, people become dissatisfied, leading to an underperforming business where nobody wants to work.

So, ask yourself: Have respect and good manners begun to slip in your office? Has rude behavior become the norm? Is the biggest perpetrator a partner in the firm? Or is someone else undermining your business with their inappropriate conduct?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (, “Bullies often act just under the radar, denying their hostile intent or shrugging off their behaviors as humorous or insignificant. Yet, the constant tension they create—and the way their harmful activities tend to build over time—damages the individual targets of their bullying and the business as a whole.”

The WBI explains that workplace bullying:

  • Is driven by the perpetrator’s need to control the targeted individual

  • Escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion

  • Undermines legitimate business interests when the bully’s personal agenda takes precedence over work itself

Sherri Gordon, the author of “Beyond Bruises: The Truth About Teens and Abuse,” notes that workplace bullying looks a lot like what goes on in schools. She identifies several red flags in a leader’s behavior.

Verbal abuse. A bullying boss humiliates you in front of others. He also may shout, swear or yell at you frequently or make offensive jokes at your expense.

Persistent Intimidation. Intimi­dating behavior may include threatening to fire you or cut your pay as a way to maintain power and control.

Questioning your adequacy and your commitment. A boss may question your adequacy by belittling your opinions and ideas, either in private or in front of others. They also may blame you for problems at work (while taking credit for the good outcomes). And they may question your commitment to the job unless you work long hours and sacrifice personal time.

Undermining your work. Bosses who bully set unrealistic deadlines and change guidelines on a regular basis, causing extra work and increasing the chance for failure. Refusing to provide needed feedback is another tactic used to undermine work.

Impeding your success. Bullies may punish you for mistakes that are not yours or bring up past mistakes in order to shift blame. They also may make it impossible for you to apply for a promotion, a transfer or additional training. They may even control or micromanage your work or projects.

Spreading rumors about you. Bullies often go to great lengths to make others look bad. Such efforts may include gossiping with others about your work, your appearance, your health or your personal life.

Isolating you at work. Bullying bosses may exclude you socially, leaving you off invitation lists for company outings or after-hours meetings. They also may schedule meetings when they know you have a conflict in your schedule, or go so far as to prohibit you from attending work meetings or lunches.

It’s important for both employees and leaders to recognize that any of this behavior is not a normal part of a workplace environment. Repetitive verbal abuse, exploitation, micromanagement and other activities that repeatedly demean an employee eventually will erode that person’s confidence and ­passion for what they do. This dynamic also has a deleterious impact on the business itself. Leaders within advisory firms must take stock of the behavior they tolerate, including their own.

Ultimately, practice leaders are responsible for confronting bullies, weeding out bad behavior and fostering a climate of trust and support. Employers, take heed: Your valued employees deserve a positive work environment. Victims of abuse should not suffer in silence, enabling bullies to continue their maddening ways. If the business owner is the biggest bully of all, enlist respected allies in the firm to call out improper behavior or engage the person directly. If you decide to seek employment elsewhere, avoid making that decision in haste or based on emotion alone. For firm leaders, determine whether departures stem from bullying within your organization. Don’t let bullies throw their weight around and trash your business.