What can you do? You’re sitting in a meeting when suddenly this torrent of words comes crashing down on top of you. It’s like a fire hose. You have no defense; you don’t know how this got started or how you’re going to end it. You feel drenched and exhausted and angry.
Verbal attacks can be as cutting as physical attacks, can’t they? Do you strike back? Do you lash out at this angry person who just had the audacity to attack you in public? Who does she think she is? Or do you say nothing? Is she just too much to handle when she’s vicious like this and you’d rather not confront her? You feel like you’ve just been hit in the face.
In 1939 I was hit in the face. I was 8 years old and living with my Irish parents on the South Side of Chicago. I was coming out of Otto’s grocery story on the corner of 57th and Normal, and Jimmy Petoskey was waiting for me, surrounded by his Polish gang of five. Jimmy’s left arm was stunted and small and he carried it bent on his chest, but he was much bigger than I was. When I walked down the concrete stops of the store, he grabbed me by my shirt with his stunted arm and decked me with a right to the face.
That was 74 years ago, but I remember--like it was yesterday.
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What can you do? Verbal or physical, it’s all the same. You feel like you’ve been hit in the face. Most of you no longer get any physical attacks, but I know you get the verbal ones, and some of you get them at work.
Workplace verbal attacks can come from fellow workers, but the ones that hurt the most come from your boss, the Big Bully himself. The U.S. Workforce Bullying Institute released a report in 2010 indicating that 35 percent of workers reported they had been bullied on the job. And guess who the bully was? Right. Jimmy Petoskey. Your very own Jimmy Petoskey has created his own “gang,” a group of friends who watch him as he serves up abuse. Your Jimmy feels good about himself only when he makes you feel badly. It could be a verbal tongue lashing for a simple mistake or a snide remark embarrassing you in public. His friends aren’t going to stand up to him; why should they? They’re not stupid. They could be next.
What can you do?
Several years ago, I spent many hours working in the operating room of a hospital. Ninety-nine percent of the surgeons I observed were perfect gentlemen and their nurses loved them. It can get very tense, of course, when the patient doesn’t respond to the anesthesia, or when the surgeon doesn’t have the instrument he needs at the moment he needs it. And if the surgeon is a bully, he might take it out on his nurses. In 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court awarded a nurse $325,000 for her claims of “intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault” after she was screamed at by a surgeon.
That’s one thing you can do; you can sue. But lawsuits, even with big pay-outs, don’t solve the issue if you want to continue working there. Here’s what I have done in the past:
Find a quiet moment. A time when you can be alone with the bully, and confront him. Do it without anger and with plenty of tact. But be very clear; describe each example and how it made you feel. Then ask him if there’s anything you’re doing that makes him angry. And if that doesn’t work:
Contact Human Resources. They’ve been trained in both confidentiality and confrontation. If they can’t guide and assist you in handling this bully, and you really don’t feel like paying for a lawsuit, you have only one alternative:
Find a new job. But after you have your new job and you’re ready to leave this one, drop by the bully’s office and say: “I forgive you.” He may not get it right away; in fact, he may never get it. But if he’s halfway decent he’ll wake up one morning and realize what he did, and you will know that you prevented this from happening to someone else. And that’s better than vengeance.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.