Correction to This Article
A May 29 Business article about bully bosses misspelled the name of author Jane Middelton- Moz in some references. The article also misstated the title of her book and did not mention its co-author. The correct title is "Bullies: From the Playground to the Boardroom," and the co-author is Mary Lee Zawadski.

Big Bad Boss Tales

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By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

The boss got the job done. There was no question about that. But while getting it done, he allegedly threw a tape dispenser at a contractor who complained about a lack of funds. He is said to have made nasty remarks about her weight and sexual orientation. He is accused of trying to fire people who disagreed with him. A high-up official recently called this boss a "serial abuser" of low-level employees and a "quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy."

As many know, the boss being so described is John R. Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, President Bush's nominee for ambassador to the United Nations. Tales of his management style came out of Senate testimony during recent confirmation hearings. Bolton, if one is to believe the testimony, some of which has been denied by his colleagues, is the ultimate Bully Boss.

But he is certainly not the only one.

So, what is a bully boss? He or she is someone who threatens, intimidates and makes workers feel they have no power. This behavior can manifest itself in many ways -- some of them entertaining, but only long after the fact and mostly for the kind of rubberneckers drawn to highway accidents.

Of course, that's from the viewpoint of underlings. Bosses, like other people, have personality conflicts, and sometimes may find their dislike for an ineffectual or lazy employee hard to hide. Bosses who have to give out bad news -- bad evaluations, downsizing, firing -- may also find themselves painted as bullies by those on the receiving end.

The bully boss phenomenon has come under the spotlight in the past couple of years as executives have faced juries in the backwash of corporate scandals. Many of the big bosses who have been on trial have had to sit in the courtroom as former employees give testimony illustrating the seamy side of power. For if power corrupts, the bullying behavior it often triggers does not engender endless loyalty. And once the cards start going the other way, employees formerly cowed by the company's leaders can finally speak up.

The recently enacted scenes haven't been pretty.

Most prominently, perhaps, TV and print personality Martha Stewart was imprisoned for lying to federal investigators about a personal sale of shares in a biotechnology company. She was brought down, in part, by a Merrill Lynch broker's assistant who earned $45,000 a year. He testified against her and had e-mailed friends after run-ins with the housekeeping goddess. After one encounter, the assistant wrote to a friend that "I have never, ever been treated more rudely by a stranger on the telephone. She actually hung up on me!" He also noted that Stewart had referred to "people like that idiot" who answered the phones -- the assistant's job -- as the reason Merrill Lynch "is laying off ten thousand employees."

Former HealthSouth chief financial officer Weston Smith took the stand in March and said fired chief executive Richard M. Scrushy -- accused of massive fraud -- pushed him into signing false financial statements. "His analogy was that we all rode in together in this pickup truck and we were all going to ride out on it," Smith said while testifying under a plea deal. He went on to portray a culture of intimidation at HealthSouth, and said Scrushy would "humiliate" underlings who challenged him.

"He was referred to as the king. He made every decision," Smith said in testimony.

Scrushy did not take the stand in the trial, for which deliberations will continue this week, although a former HealthSouth executive, Daryl Brown, painted a slightly different portrait of his ex-boss, telling the court of Scrushy's church work.

To many people, the word "boss" brings to mind other four-letter words. It was the boss's fault Dad came home late. Mom's boss won't give her the day off. Mr. Dithers always refuses to give Dagwood a raise, always blows his top and constantly fires (then rehires) him. Donald Trump is now famous for his grim "You're fired!" on his television show, "The Apprentice."

In real life, recent corporate scandals have exposed the behavior of executives who ruled with an iron fist. Where were Bernard J. Ebbers's loyal minions when he was on trial? Many current and former MCI employees were glued to their televisions, rooting for him to be locked away. Once Ebbers was on the stand to testify in his own defense, he blamed underlings for the company's multibillion-dollar fraud, saying he had no clue what was happening.

"It's kind of funny when these people get on the stand, they don't have many people come and speak up for them," said Aubrey Daniels, founder of a management company that works with corporations such as DaimlerChrysler and Blue Cross Blue Shield to "rid them of management by fear."

"If they were really good bosses," there would be "an uprising that would say, 'Wait a minute, this guy would never do that,' " Daniels said.

The woods are full of bully bosses, of course, but a few have contributed to everyone's store of what amounts to corporate porn, titillating to readers and laced liberally with schadenfreude, that delicious sense of pleasure in someone else's bad fortune.

Manhattan hotelier Leona Helmsley grabbed the attention of the city's exuberant tabloids, but got little staff support in a 1989 tax evasion case against her. She was in fact brought down, in part, by subordinates she had bullied. The memorable line "Only the little people pay taxes"? That came from a maid, fired by Helmsley, who testified that her boss had said that to her. A man who supervised one of Helmsley's hotels said the Queen of Mean often berated workers and sent out pink slips on a regular basis to her anxious staff. She was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

John Bolton did not have a lot of support, either, from former subordinates and co-workers when it came time for testimony.

"Mr. Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel -- throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman," said Melody Townsel, the businesswoman who was working on a government contract in Moscow in 1994 when she had the tape dispenser thrown at her. "For nearly two weeks, while I awaited fresh direction from my company and from USAID, John Bolton hounded me in such an appalling way that I eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there. Mr. Bolton, of course, then routinely visited me there to pound on the door and shout threats."

As colorful and entertaining as that testimony was, another side of the story was presented. One of Bolton's current top aides, Matthew Freedman, told the Foreign Relations Committee that Townsel was "very creative" and "very good" but that she had a tendency to "exaggerate and use language that was inflammatory."

Former assistant secretary of state Otto J. Reich countered another of the tales about Bolton, taking responsibility for trying to fire an intelligence analyst whose analysis of Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and other hot spots they found "unacceptable."

Whether Bolton qualifies or not, the bully boss as a type is rather common, according to researchers who have studied the type. About 90 percent of all workers have dealt with one, according to Jane Middelton-Moz, clinical psychologist and author of "Bullies: Playground to Boardroom." And most bully bosses get away with their intimidating practices, at least for a time.

"Oftentimes bullying bosses look really good, oftentimes they make a lot of money, and oftentimes they do well in terms of what an organization thinks it wants," Middleton-Moz said. That is because bullies can be charming and funny, she said. But they also use power tactics, such as bragging, arrogance and sarcasm, to build themselves up while bringing others down.

Sometimes the highest of the higher-ups don't know what's going on. Air Force procurement officer Darleen A. Druyun pleaded guilty last year to a conspiracy charge for negotiating for a job with Boeing Co. while still supervising the company's work for the Air Force. Court papers and interviews with former colleagues painted a portrait of a woman who bullied subordinates, skewered industry executives and sought personal advantage at government expense.

Marvin R. Sambur, who was appointed Air Force acquisition chief in late 2001, said he was surprised to learn that Druyun, not her subordinates, was deciding the outcome of competitions and contract bonuses.

When someone disagrees with the bully boss, the latter takes it as an attack, Middleton-Moz said. The bully then gets even more fired up and in top bully mode.

Democrats made hay of testimony about Christian Westermann, a State Department analyst who once challenged intelligence Bolton wanted to include in a speech about Cuba. Bolton, according to testimony, intimidated him and tried to have him fired. In the end, Bolton was ordered to change his speech and Colin Powell commended Westermann. Bolton denies pushing to get anyone fired but did admit to asking to have another person who questioned that same Cuba speech reassigned.

Carl W. Ford Jr., former State Department intelligence chief, said that word of the incident spread quickly through the bureau and that the analysts were "very negatively affected" and "scared" by it.

The spillover effect, in which intimidation of one person makes everyone else cow in the boss's presence, is common in America's workplaces.

Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, ousted in March from his perch as chief executive of insurance giant American International Group Inc. in the wake of an accounting scandal, was known for fiercely controlling the company. One D.C. area consultant with knowledge of Greenberg and those under him said it was no secret that he "was an extremely arrogant person. If you didn't go along with Hank, you knew about it. It was either Hank's way or the highway, and what Hank wanted, Hank got."

That is the other effect the bully boss has on the workplace: The scare tactics eventually cause low morale.

Joe L. Allbritton, chairman of Riggs Bank, was feared widely. And for good reason. A former officer at the company said that Virginia White, Allbritton's personal secretary, would send shoe polish to executives with a note stating that the chairman wondered if the executive might want to polish his shoes. He was famous for yelling at executives, for upbraiding a bank officer he might spot working at his desk without his jacket on. He would fire executives over the phone, including a now-former chief financial officer. A spokesman for the family did not return phone calls.

"Nature pulls a dirty trick on us, because if you yell at someone, you can see them move immediately," Daniels said. "The boss doesn't get nearly as much immediate feedback using positive reinforcement. Bosses who keep [bullying] do this because they are reinforced for it."

As with some of these bully bosses, Allbritton was never accused of not caring about the bank. It's just that he wanted done what he wanted done, when he said he wanted it done. And people listened. Many felt they had no choice.

"They end up with enough power that if you resist them, it will hurt your career," said Steven L. Katz, former senior adviser in the personnel office of the Clinton White House. He took his experiences from that position, and from his time as chief counsel with the agency where federal employees take grievances related to personnel actions, and wrote a book called "Lion Taming: Working Successfully With Leaders, Bosses, and Other Tough Customers."

"While bullying bosses hired through the political appointments process is the exception rather than the rule, the very behaviors that are ultimately seen as bullying behavior are initially tolerated, if not admired, as intellectual arrogance," Katz said.

"When you're a bully leader, you tell people what you want them to do," said Clay Parcells, regional managing director with Right Management Consultants. "When [Enron Corp. Chief Financial Officer Andrew] Fastow wanted things done a certain way, his lieutenants marched that way. Only those who were in the club and did what they wanted done" got incentives, bonuses and were taken on trips with the big bosses.

Of course, not all bully bosses are highly recognizable figures. Parcells shivers when he hears the term. He had a boss seven years ago who, among other things, once demanded that his employees contribute to a nonprofit on whose board he served. At a weekly meeting a short time later, the boss announced to the group that he wanted to thank them all for contributing, "except for you, Clay," Parcells recalled. This was just one instance of many where the boss berated Parcells in front of other employees and otherwise tried to intimidate him. "I left the company because of him," Parcells said.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which now recognizes bullying as a form of workplace violence, released a study last year that showed 24.5 percent of the 516 companies surveyed reported that some degree of bullying had occurred there during the preceding year. Of the most recent incidents, 39.2 percent involved an employee as the aggressor, 24.5 percent a customer and 14.7 percent a supervisor.

Victims of workplace bullying may soon have recourse in some states against their aggressive bosses. In what is considered the first workplace bully case of its kind, a jury ordered an Indiana surgeon in March to pay a former hospital employee $325,000 in lost wages after a 2001 incident in which the doctor screamed and lunged at the worker. Anti-bullying laws already exist in Australia, Canada and Great Britain.

Just like in the schoolyard, however, it may be tough to make those bully bosses turn to more mentorly ways.

Middleton-Moz has interviewed many people who had been treated for their bullying behaviors. "They said they had been doing this since grade school," she said. Until somebody more powerful than they are stops them, "they won't stop."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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