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Reverse Bullying: When Managers Feel Intimidated

Managers undergo thorough training to recognize workplace discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and bullying. However, “reverse bullying,” where subordinates intimidate upward, often receives less attention, despite being equally real.

Subordinates engaging in reverse bullying instill fear in their managers, hindering accountability. Some managers choose to ignore inappropriate behavior to avoid confrontation. This behavior may become a standard operating procedure for certain workers, even causing confident managers to retreat.

Team members observing individuals receiving special treatment for misconduct wonder why management doesn’t address their coworkers’ bad behavior. This person seems to get a free pass every time, even as managers come and go.

Tolerating underlying rude, condescending, or confrontational behavior sends a message that the department or team allows inappropriate workplace conduct.

Reverse Bullying Is Unacceptable In The Workplace

Jeff Nowak, a management-side employment attorney at Littler in Chicago, emphasizes, “Nothing undermines team camaraderie more than ‘negative favoritism’ affecting an entire department without being addressed. If such behavior persists, it can lead to consequences like excessive turnover, stress claims, low net promoter scores, and copycat behaviors, contributing to a race to the bottom in unacceptable conduct.”

In various forms, such behavior includes a worker with a “sparring” personality retaliating when faced with corrective comments. This individual is quick-witted and adept at deflecting responsibility, causing less assertive managers to step back. “Little black book” workers threaten lawsuits and vow to document incidents for legal actions. Some attribute a manager’s critique to discrimination, while others engage in preemptive “pretaliation” by complaining to HR before the manager can raise concerns. These actions may shift HR’s focus to the manager’s alleged misconduct rather than the employee’s behavior.

Nowak underscores the consequences of inaction, emphasizing the need to document problems in writing to avoid legal risks. Deborah Birndorf Zeiler, an employment attorney, stresses the duty of managers to take action against improper employee behavior to prevent potential liability for the employer. Reporting bullying is crucial, and HR assistance is essential.

When a manager faces defensive and rude behavior, they should hold a meeting with a witness, clarifying expectations and consequences. Informing the employee that HR is aware of the meeting and involving both managers and HR limits manipulation. Employees keeping notes of perceived attacks should share them in real-time, but referencing these notes to intimidate others is not permitted due to potential consequences in creating a hostile work environment.

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Resource: Permissions from SHRM 12.2023

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