Keil Hubert: Mitigating the Malevolent Sheep

Bullies arise throughout the organisational chart. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses how to mitigate the effects of the insidious ‘powerless’ bully archetype.

What do you picture when I use the term ‘office bully’? After my column on how bullies are attracted to committees posted last week, several of my friends stepped forward to share their own horror stories of bullies that they’d encountered during their working lives. I noticed a trend in my friends’ tales that I thought was interesting (and worth sharing): in almost all of the anecdotes that they shared with me, the ‘baddie’ of each tale was an actively abusive, physically aggressive person who used suggestions of physical violence or threats of twisted company authority to try to harm people who were less powerful than them. I’m hoping to get permission to share some of those stories (and how they were resolved) so we can all benefit from the lessons-learned.

In one unique story, though, the baddie of the piece was a toxic co-worker at the absolute lowest rung of the office hierarchy: someone that should have been the powerless victim of all and sundry in a regular tale of dastardly office bullying. Someone that ostensibly had no official power over others as far as the org chart was concerned. I found it interesting (but not at all surprising) that a functionary at the base of the office totem pole could effectively terrorize the rest of the office and (this is the important part) be recognized for what they really were: a sheep bullying wolves.

Oh yes, they most definitely exist. I’d argue that most businesses have these veiled fiends, and that they frequently cause more damage to team morale and office esprit-de-corps than an out-and-out aggressive bully ever could, thanks to their insidious habit of undermining everything that their team tries to accomplish. They’re the human equivalent of a wasted disease, foisted on everyone except the carrier.

To put this into proper perspective, a bully is, per the UK dictionary definition, a  ‘a person who hurts, persecutes, or intimidates weaker people’. I’m comfortable with that as a general functional definition. In the case of the so-called ‘powerless bully’, we’re talking about a person who hurts, persecutes, or otherwise intimidates people who are, through their acceptance of the bully’s actions, rendered weaker than their persecutor.

To illustrate my point, let’s go back to the late 1990s. I was a consultant at the time with a Big 5 global firm, and I was trying to transfer from one partnership within the firm to a different partnership located several hundred miles away. I’d already interviewed with my new boss, had received my transfer chit, and was in the process of relocating my family. All of my household goods had gone on ahead to our new flat in Texas via a contracted lorry. My wife, our toddler, and I just needed to pay a penalty fee to our landlord for breaking our lease early.

I assume you have something similar in the UK. Here, when you rent a flat, you agree to stay and pay rent for at least a year. If you try to move out before your contract is up, the landlord gets to charge you ridiculous financial penalties. For leaving.
I assume you have something similar in the UK. Here, when you rent a flat, you agree to stay and pay rent for at least a year. If you try to move out before your contract is up, the landlord gets to charge you ridiculous financial penalties. For leaving.

This should have been a non-event. The landlord knew why we were leaving and didn’t hold it against us, since they were accustomed to businesspeople transferring in and out of our corner of the city. The new partner that I was joining had agreed to pay our lease termination fee as part of the relocation package, and had promised that he’d have his executive secretary post a check a check to us via overnight delivery to expedite our move. We made our plans to sleep in the empty flat for another night, sign for the check first thing the next day, turn it over to the landlord, and then get on the road for a very long drive.

As you can imagine, the day passed and the check never arrived.  I called the partner’s office, and reached a voicemail box. I borrowed a kiosk in the landlord’s office and sent an e-mail that bounced. We were livid. Also, we were hungry since we’d emptied the flat of food when we emptied it of clothing, furniture, etc. We thought that maybe there had been some snag in the ‘guaranteed overnight delivery’ service.

First thing the next day, I called the partner and asked what the problem was. He said that he didn’t know and transferred me to his executive secretary, who wasn’t interested in discussing the problem with me. She airily said that she’d take care of it ‘by the end of the day’ (necessitating another night spend on the floor of the empty flat). We were furious, but helpless to do anything.

As you’ve probably guessed, the check didn’t arrive the next day. As before, I made more calls and heard more excuses. I finally asked the secretary (rather bluntly) whether she had any intention of sending the check or not. She snarled at me that I should ‘just grow up’ and hung up me. I was aghast that a prestigious global firm would keep someone so obnoxious on the payroll.

That night, I found an eviction notice from the local sheriff’s office pinned to our empty flat’s door. Since we hadn’t left on time and hadn’t paid our penalty fee yet, the landlord decided to be a bit of a burke and charge us with delinquency. I had a very pointed discussion with the office manager over her actions, and we agreed to settle up via my already dangerously-overtaxed credit card. It took me years to get that card paid off as a result, but it got us out of a very nasty bind.

When I finally reached the new office down south, I discovered that the problem that I’d been having with the very nasty secretary wasn’t out of the ordinary. It turned out that the woman was very well known by the rest of the office staff to be a person with severe psychological and emotional issues. She wouldn’t show up to work on time (if at all, most days). She wouldn’t complete the majority of the tasks that she was given by the partner. She seemed to have no sense of accountability to anyone or anything. I saw it for myself on my first day at the new office when Madame Bob[1] breezed in two hours after the day started, refused to top off the office printer, and couldn’t be bothered to answer the office phone.

Merely suggesting that she do her job always triggered a major drama in the lobby. She should have won a BAFTA for her melodramatic caterwauling.
Merely suggesting that she do her job always triggered a major drama in the lobby. She should have won a BAFTA for her melodramatic caterwauling.

I took my complaint to the partner, thinking that he’d fix the problem on the spot. After all, she’d been ordered to put a signed check into an envelope and post it… and simply didn’t, day after day. I told the boss that I was greatly upset at how badly the transfer had gone. He told me that he knew that his executive assistant was an unreliable drain on office operations, and that he regretted the trouble that he’d made for me and for my family. He wasn’t, however, willing to fire his secretary for her gross violation of office conduct – he wasn’t even willing to reprimand her over it. The Big Boss, who had the power to fire all of us on a whim, was concerned about having to fight off a wrongful termination suit from a vengeful employee even though he’d surely win it. When I pressed, he said that it was because the woman had pre-emptively made a case that she had medical problems, and therefore any complaint about her misconduct was said to be ‘unlawful persecution of a defenceless victim’.  So, instead of dealing with the problem forthrightly, the partner kept the useless woman on the payroll and allowed her carte blanche to annoy the other hundred employees to hear shrivelled little heart’s content.

In a clinically objective sense, I have to admire the woman’s chutzpah. She was a low-skilled, low-wage functionary in a dead-end job, and she found a way to twist her situation into a personal hunting preserve for her own petty amusement. While the organisational chart said that she had no power over anyone else in the office, the reality for that office was that this woman ruled – she got to do whatever she wanted, because she’d alledged that she’d file crippling lawsuits at the first hint of being held accountable for her actions. It was a risky gambit, but she got away with it.

That’s why I wanted to tell this story: it’s far more common than most people realize for low-power employees to cynically and ingeniously find ways to reverse their power imbalance vis-à-vis their management chain. The power that the company invests in a manager can (and often is) given away to the workers through the manager’s confusion, anxiety, or exhausted acquiescence. This can manifest in a great many flavours, but it’s easiest to pull off through the hoarding of critical business processes:

  • The bitter sysadmin keeps all of the critical servers’ root passwords to himself, so that no one else can recover a critical service or build a new user account without his approval.
  • The passive-aggressive purchasing clerk waits until an office supplies order is ‘big enough’ (according to some secret standard) before placing it.
  • The domineering manager receives critical, time-sensitive paperwork and then leaves it sitting in her in-box until after a deadline passes.

The common thread to all of these devious approaches is that the power that the scoundrels wield in the office comes directly from a manager or supervisor who has abdicated their responsibility to hold employees accountable. Management’s job is to make sure that required work gets done in a timely and safe manner, and that no one abuses the company’s rules. That’s why managers are empowered to admonish, to reprimand, and to terminate bad employees. That power is only useful as a corrective action (or as a deterrent) if the manager will actually wield it. If they refuse to, then they cede their power to the office scallywag(s).

She was careful to never step completely over the line and do something that would get her fired while I was working there. She came very close, though. No one wanted to expose a customer to her shenanigans.
She was careful to never step completely over the line and do something that would get her fired while I was working there. She came very close, though. No one wanted to expose a customer to her shenanigans.

Further, the example baddies described above often protect themselves because they aren’t actually refusing to do work. Just like the addled secretary that refused to send me my lease termination check, these people make it a point to accomplish their tasks… eventually. They delay, tactically, in such a way that others in the office are harmed (directly or indirectly). All the need do is to drag their feet just enough that a critical timeline fails. That way, their boss can’t actually reprimand them for failing to accomplish work; only for not doing it quickly enough.

There are three ways to mitigate this sort of radioactive employee, and they all involve simple principles carried over from the information security realm:

  • Reduce the number of potential processing error points in a given task. Instead of asking a bad employee to gather requirements for an office supplies order, get the list of requirements first, and then direct the malcontent to take specific action. ‘Order this list of office supplies online from Smith’s Stationery.’
  • When assigning work, set unambiguous expectations that include hard deadlines. ‘Complete this order no later than 4 p.m. Tuesday, 25th
  • Pre-emptively deny the malcontent any deviation authority. ‘If anything on the list isn’t available, report that to me immediately – after you’ve ordered everything that is available on the list without delay.’
  • Finally – and this is the most important element – ensure that there’s a backup agent for any and all work that needs to be done. Someone that possesses the same abilities to accomplish the required work (e.g., a company credit card, an account at the office supplies store, etc.). If or when the malcontent tries to delay or otherwise foul up the required process, you activate the backup agent to accomplish it instead so that work isn’t interrupted. ‘If you don’t send me a copy of a completed online purchase by 4 p.m., Ms Jenkins will place this order in your stead.’

When the passive-aggressive employee fails to meet any stated expectations (and they will), politely and cheerfully document it on the spot. Point out exactly where the malcontent failed to comply, and use the backup agent’s success at the task to make it clear that the failure was a personal issue, and not a systems problem. Admonish the malcontent to do better next time, because the team is counting on him or her.

Will this clear up the problem? No, of course it won’t. It simply makes it harder for the determined team-wrecker to screw over other people. When they find that they can’t get away with slowing down work, they’ll change their approach to inconvenience you in other ways. For example, coming up with specious reasons to not come to work at all. That’s fine – from an HR perspective, absenteeism is another controllable process.

What’s important here is that you, as the responsible leader, take away the malcontent’s ability to harm his or her co-workers through deliberate inaction. Doing so reasserts your authority, both in the eyes of the person who is trying to undermine you, and in the eyes of the people who are suffering because of the one bitter employee’s actions. Demonstrating publically that you don’t tolerate wilful failure often has an electrifying effect on everyone who has felt the office bully’s sting. You’ll see people falling all over themselves to step up and serve as backups to the bully’s critical processes.

I often enjoyed calling chronic problem employees at the crack of dawn to remind them that they'd forgotten to come to work, but that's another story for another column.
I often enjoyed calling chronic problem employees at the crack of dawn to remind them that they’d forgotten to come to work, but that’s another story for another column.

Additionally, there are usually very simple steps that you can take to further blunt the low-power bully’s antics, like recording all critical passwords in a central vault, or storing critical items (like keys) in a locker that can be opened in the case of a time-sensitive emergency. Taking away the malcontent’s ability to hold processes hostage will go a long way towards blunting their ability to poison life in the office. Never allow a known or suspected miscreant to gain exclusive control over any critical function in the workplace. If they realize that they can harm you by slow-rolling a task, they inevitably will. Politely and professionally refuse to allow that to happen – thereby disarming the low-power cubicle insurgent of their primary weapon.

In the end, the moral of the story is that any bullying in the office – any deliberate abuse of power, however small, to hurt another employee without a reasonable business justification – should not be tolerated. Bosses shouldn’t allow it, and employees shouldn’t endure it. People have as much power over you as you allow them to have. When you knuckle under and let a conniving sadist toy with his or her co-workers, then you’ve failed in your core function as a leader.


[1] Not her real name, in accordance with standard blogging practice.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership and IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

© Business Reporter 2020