This exploration of bullying by proxy began last time with definitions of workplace bullying and workplace bullying by proxy. If you haven't yet seen that post, I recommend starting there. In this post I examine how the practice of bullying by proxy complicates design and enforcement of anti-bullying policy.
How primary bullies respond to reports of bullying by the proxy
Typically, supervisors play a critical role in enforcing anti-bullying policy. That's why the enforcement mechanism is at risk when the primary bully is the supervisor of the proxy bully. Because the primary bully and the proxy bully are co-conspirators, and because the primary and proxy conceal the bullying activities of the primary bully, the primary bully has a conflict of interest relative to enforcing anti-bullying policy vis-à-vis the proxy bully's activities.
For example, the primary bully might "deal with" a report of the proxy bully's behavior by schooling the proxy bully in the need to be more sophisticated or covert about bullying. With greater sophistication, the proxy bully can achieve the shared objectives of the primary and proxy while reducing the probability of any targets or witnesses filing complaints with the primary or with Human Resources (HR).
The futility of filing complaints with either HR or the primary bully can become so well known among the target population that they adopt a stance relative to the bullying that can best be described as learned helplessness. [Maier 2016]
In effect, reports of bullying by the proxy that do reach the primary bully, either directly or through HR, serve largely to help the primary and proxy "improve" their approach to bullying. Over time, they become more effective bullies by taking steps to avoid detection and to deter the filing of complaints.
The role of the primary bully's supervisor
In what Bullying by proxy complicates design
and enforcement of anti-bullying policyis perhaps the simplest case, the supervisor of the primary bully might be unaware of any bullying activity by the primary bully, because the proxy bully insulates the primary bully from any bullying incidents in which the primary played a role. In this case, there are few, if any, third-party reports of bullying activity by the primary, because these activities are so rarely observed by anyone other than the proxy bully.
Moreover, when investigators interview the proxy bully, the proxy is unlikely to reveal the primary's role in the bullying. Because the primary is the supervisor of the proxy, the proxy quite rationally might fear retaliation. And even when bystanders do witness the activities of the primary, learned helplessness can reduce their motivation to report their observations.
The fundamental attribute of the nightmare scenario
To describe more complex configurations, let the notation S(A) represent the supervisor of individual A. Let P(A,n) denote the nth proxy bully for primary bully A. (A might be directing more than one proxy bully.) Consider a report chain A-B-C, where A = S(B) and B = S(C). Then, for example, A = S(S(C)). If B is the jth proxy bully for A, then B = P(A,j). And if C is the kth proxy bully for B, then C = P(B,k) = P(P(A,j),k). In that case, which we might call the nightmare scenario, its characteristic attribute would be that it contains this structure:
A = S(B)
B = S(C) = P(A,j)
C = P(B,k)
When bullying by proxy has permeated the organizational culture to the extent that such notation is useful, the complexities of the dynamics can be difficult to contemplate. In these situations, a more promising approach to managing bullying activity might involve cultural considerations. [Pheko 2017]
Nevertheless, the above speculations about how bullying by proxy can create difficulties for enforcement of anti-bullying policy in the simplest case would seem to be even more significant in situations like the nightmare scenario. Specifically, any reporting chain that contains a subchain of the form C = P(P(A, j), k), or subchains of even higher orders, could potentially present insurmountable challenges to policy enforcement programs that are restricted to using conventional investigative techniques that depend for their effectiveness on the role of the supervisor.
Recommendations for policy and enforcement
In terms of behavior observable to third parties, bullying by proxy is indistinguishable from direct bullying by the proxy acting alone. For this reason, any direct bullying incidents that are detected must be presumed to be bullying by proxy until there is evidence to the contrary. From that presumption we deduce the need for four principles that act as safeguards.
- Collect data regarding prevalence of bullying incidents in a given organization
- A pattern of reports of bullying within a single organization reporting to a single manager is an indicator of bullying by proxy. An impartial investigator can investigate such patterns. The manager of the implicated organization is presumed not to be an impartial investigator.
- Direct all reports of bullying incidents to an impartial investigator
- Assigning a single investigator (or investigative group) to receive all reports of bullying is an essential element. It supports pattern recognition and learning at the organizational level. The supervisors of the alleged perpetrators are presumed not to be impartial investigators.
- Bullying is a performance issue for both the bully and the bully's supervisor
- In the case of non-proxy bullying, regarding the bully as the sole perpetrator is an enforcement error. The bully is a perpetrator. The bully's supervisor had a duty to ensure compliance with the anti-bullying policy, and for some reason did not fulfill this duty. Investigation is required.
- Bullying is a performance issue for both the proxy bully and the primary bully
- In the case of bullying by proxy, regarding the proxy bully as the sole perpetrator is an enforcement error. Both the primary and the proxy are perpetrators, though the primary's responsibility is probably the greater.
Tracking the incidence of reports of bullying is an essential element of anti-bullying programs. In some cases, the trail of reports might be the only observable indicator of the activities of a primary bully, as he or she moves from unit to unit, through reorganizations, and upwards in the organizational hierarchy. A dedicated investigative element of HR is likely necessary. First in this series Top Next Issue
Is a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
- Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why
do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
- Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal
abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers
rely on to avoid disciplinary action.
- Unrecognized Bullying: II
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, bystanders,
perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. Confirmation bias is one such
- Power Mobbing at Work
- Mobbing is a form of group bullying of an individual — the target. Power mobbing occurs when a
politically powerful person orchestrates the mobbing. It's a form of bullying that's especially harmful
to the target and the organization.
- Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms
are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so
easily evades most anti-bullying policies.
See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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