Bullying and Narcissism in the Workplace

It’s easy these days to throw around the narcissist label on anyone who doesn’t listen or acts like they’re the most important one in the room. While there are few real, diagnosable narcissists, there are plenty of people who show-up on the spectrum of narcissism. The challenge in today’s workplace is not just the overt, grandiose narcissist, but it’s the subtle narcissist who has made his or her way into management, and is adept at keeping the right people in the dark, while exploiting those under his or her leadership. Not all narcissists are bullies, but many of them are, and you need to recognize them when you see them- a task easier said than done.

According to psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie, of the Workplace Bullying Institution, the most common bullying behaviors are:

  • Blaming mistakes on other people
  • Making unreasonable job demands
  • Criticizing a worker’s ability
  • Inconsistently applying company rules, especially punitive measures
  • Implying a worker’s job is on the line or making outright threats to fire
  • Hurling insults or put-downs
  • Discounting or denying a worker’s accomplishments
  • Excluding or “icing out” a worker
  • Yelling, screaming
  • Stealing credit for ideas or work

As you read the list, you may realize that you see all of these behaviors at different times on the job. However, when it happens frequently or repeatedly, you need to protect yourself. If you’re an HR director, you need to be aware of possible abuse, and respond by giving employees a way to voice their concerns when sharing bullying actions.

Herein lies the challenge for HR professionals, as you most often have the interests of management and the company foremost in your job description. That’s not to insinuate that HR professionals lack integrity or don’t see real problems with management. The reality is that whether consciously or not, HR personnel often find ways to dismiss bullying concerns of subordinates because they “know” management.

In 2008, an informal workplace bullying study asked 400 respondents what their employer did when they reported bullying or abusive problems. These are the results:

  • 7% conducted a fair investigation and protected the target with punitive measures against the bully.
  • 2% conducted a fair investigation with punitive measures for the bully but no protection for the target.
  • 7% conducted an unfair investigation with no punitive measure for the bully.
  • 31% conducted an inadequate/unfair investigation with no punitive measures for the bully, but plenty for the target.
  • 8% did nothing or ignored the problem with no consequences for anyone, bully or target.
  • 7% did nothing, but retaliated against the target for reporting. Target remained employed.
  • 24% of employers did nothing, except fire the target.

Of course, we can’t tell the full story of these instances, and while the sample is not large, neither is it singular. When these statistics were returned, psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie responded by saying, “Do not trust HR. They work for management and are management.”

With an ever growing spotlight on bullying everywhere from the playground to politics, it’s more important now than ever for HR professionals to implement systems that protect those who are being bullied, while also maintaining credibility for leaders who may be wrongly accused.

But let’s not get down and out on ourselves, as there are companies who are making big strides in protecting their people and culture from the effects of narcissism and bullying. One of the more proficient processes is the usage of ombudspersons, people who hear complaints, and provide counsel on how to proceed within specific organizations. Ombuds have intimate knowledge of a company’s systems and processes, and therefore are able to offer anonymous feedback and assessments to executives. They can serve like therapists, who offer confidentiality to those who are looking for relief from the in-office bully.

Everyone deserves a place to work in which they are appreciated for their contribution, without fear of being belittled, bullied, or made to feel insignificant because of someone who displays narcissistic characteristics and uses bullying tactics to get the job done.

*For more information on narcissism (in general) and bullying in the workplace as shared in this article, we recommend Rethinking Narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin. Some of the thoughts and ideas in this post were also drawn from Dr. Malkin’s work.