By Linnda Durre, Ph.D., Author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day published by McGraw Hill, February 19, 2010.
As a business and corporate consultant and psychotherapist, I’ve analyzed, worked with, and consulted with many difficult bosses over the years. In order to cope and deal with them, you need to know why they act the way they do and how best to deal with them, in order to earn their respect, get things accomplished, change negative situations to positive ones, and preserve your sanity.
In my twice-monthly column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. The previous ones include: Dick the Dictator, Bashia the Backstabber, Sewell the Sexual Harasser, Carl the Control Freak, Paula the Passive Aggressive, Clayton the Clueless, Greta the Gossip, Susie the Sugar Coater, Ian the Idea Stealer, Al the Alcoholic, Nancy the Narcissist, and Donald the Deal Maker.
This week I shall discuss another difficult boss — Vernon the Verbal Attacker, who is verbally abusive, insulting, and vicious. His “conversations” feel like you are getting hit by an UZI nail gun. It’s painful and never-ending. It must stop and you can do something about it.
SITUATION: Vernon the Verbal Attacker has probably been sitting on years of resentments, disappointments, failed attempts at success, unmet expectations, desperation, revenge, paranoia, and anger. He has a very short fuse, is explosive and impulsive. You are the recipient of all of his rage. He calls you and/or others pejorative names, demeans you and your work, and can do this a variety of ways: privately – softly and calmly whispering to you, or yelling at you when you’re alone, or publically – loudly screaming at you and/or others in front of the entire office. He makes you feel that he could and would physically attack you as well, and that might be a possibility. There is potential danger in dealing with him directly because of his volatility, unpredictability, and viciousness. His black hole of anger could ultimately lead to physical assaults, murder, and/or Vernon’s suicide. I recommend going directly to HR for your own safety and let them deal with him.
EXPLANATION: Vernon probably had verbally abusive parents. Dinner time was probably like the Harvard Debate Team – always sharpening up your verbal skills, bolstering your arguments, and strengthening your defenses. Weakness was not to be tolerated by Vernon ‘s father, so to win his father’s approval, Vernon became a master of the verbal chess game. You sure wouldn’t want to be married to him. Inside, Vernon feels vulnerable, weak, and defenseless. He’s lonely, scared, and always sees enemies everywhere. He doesn’t trust many people, if anyone. Allay his fears and stand your ground.
Vernon attacks verbally first because he believes that the best defense is a good offense and that “verbal might makes right.” Regardless of why you need to talk to him, Vernon believes he always has the first word AND the last word – and it will usually be something negative about what you’ve done, want to do, and/or should have done. He does this to make you doubt yourself, feel weak, scared, and to threaten you. He will attack you before you even complete your second sentence because he wants to control the conversation. Instead of having a productive discussion with a win/win intention about how to solve a problem, you’re now fighting to defend yourself from Vernon’s unexpected and mercenary attacks.
Don’t put up with his verbal abuse at all. Read “The Verbally Abusive Relationship,” by Patricia Evans, Ph.D., to help you understand the dynamics, defenses, and what to do. When you give him feedback, you have to establish the rules quickly at first or you’ll get verbally attacked again.
He doesn’t understand how to give compliments, and even if he did, he won’t give you any because he believes that being “nice” is a form of weakness. He never wants to be vulnerable, powerless, or owe anyone because he believes people can and will take advantage of him – which is exactly what he does to you and others. He loves the power he wields over his employees through fear and intimidation. There is a sadistic part of him that feeds on instilling fear in his employees, so be extra careful to not get caught in his trap.
You don’t want to be the target of his rages, whether verbal and/or physical. Tact, gentleness, and diplomacy are in order. You should go to HR before you even attempt to deal with him. HR may ask you to be a witness, provide confidential information, or be in the room when they deal with them. They may assure you that no harm will come to you, but that’s like a restraining order with a battering spouse – it’s a great idea, but it may not be worth the paper it’s written on. If and when a person with murderous really wants to do harm to you or kill you – they’ll find a way. And if they are explosive, you can’t trust them to keep their anger in check and control it. So exercise caution. Some people have quit, or asked for a transfer to another department, or stayed with the company but moved to another city just to get away from Vernon.
Vernon may carry concealed weapons or even have guns in his desk. He may hold a black belt in the martial arts or be ex-military trained in how to kill someone with a snap of their neck. Using martial arts or weapons to defend yourself in dangerous situations like muggings, attempted rapes, assaults, and/or home invasions is your right. Vernon may use physical assaults and/or weapons to attack people over a minor discrepancy in an office or workplace setting. He can be dangerous.
Vernon may have a history (that you are unaware of) where he has hit, punched, slapped, pushed, assaulted, and/or raped someone. He may also have been a stalker or even murdered someone. The company may have covered up his dangerous track record. As one of my professors stated in graduate school, “The only difference between suicide and homicide is the direction of the gun.” The feelings of helplessness, powerless, hopelessness, rage, and anger that Vernon may feel can turn the barrel of his weapon towards you or someone else and/or toward himself. We hear about workplace violence every day and the tragic stories about senseless murders of innocent people and bystanders are the norm. Be careful with bosses like Vernon.
SOLUTION: Report this to HR immediately and give them documentation – phone conversations, notes, emails, witnesses, voice mail and text messages, etc. Find co-workers or even former employees in other departments or at other jobs who will vouch for you and who will go to HR with you. If they can’t go with you, have them call and/or email HR with their accounts of his aggressiveness. You and your witnesses may be asked to write a statement. Inform HR that Vernon has created “a hostile work environment” which is illegal, and tell them that the company can be sued. HR directors don’t like law suits.
Let HR deal with Vernon, and follow up to see what action they have taken. If they’ve done nothing, then get an attorney and have your attorney write a letter to HR, Vernon, and Vernon’s boss, as well as the top company executives describing Vernon’s behavior as illegal and threatening. Inform them in the letter that you are considering a law suit, so they all know you are serious. If HR asks you to come to a meeting with Vernon, go with your attorney and witnesses. You may want to say something like this: “Vernon, I would like to get along with you and work in a peaceful office environment. What prevents that from happening is how you lash out verbally at me and others – most of the time for no reason whatsoever -or when there’s the slightest hint that someone has made a mistake. Sometimes you blame others for your own mistakes. I find your behavior aggressive, hostile, and unnecessary. It needs to stop. I’d like you to let me finish what I have to say without interrupting me, which is part of your war tactics to put me on the defensive and take control of the conversation. I’m here to work with you, not against you. We’re a team and we have to work together. I respect your intelligence and I ask you to respect mine, instead of treating me and everyone else around you like imbeciles. I need to request a transfer if this doesn’t stop. I’m sure HR and your boss will agree. You don’t want to be named in a law suit for creating a hostile work environment, which is illegal, and, if I win, it will cost the company a great deal of money. So please stop it now or I will sue, either by myself or with fellow co-workers. Thanks for your cooperation.”
—Linnda Durré, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, corporate trainer, national speaker, and columnist. She has hosted and co-produced two live call-in TV shows, including “Ask The Family Therapist” on America’s Health Network, which was associated with Mayo Clinic and aired from Universal Orlando. She is the author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Co-Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day” (2010 – McGraw-Hill). The book’s website is: www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com
She has been interviewed, quoted, and/or cited by Forbes, Investors Business Daily, Inc Magazine, NY Times, LA Times, SF Chonicle & Examiner, USA Today, AOL, Yahoo, Parade Magazine, NJ Star Ledger, Rochester Business Journal, Toronto Globe & Mail, Law Office Administrator, Recharger Magazine, and many others.
She has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Daytime, Good Morning America, Canada AM, and The O’Reilly Factor (twice), and the national and/or local news on ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, Fox and CW.
She has written for Forbes, CareerBuilder, Monster, A&U Magazine, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. For more information about her consulting or speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com and 407-739-8620.