A promotion to management might get you a new title and more money, but it doesn’t protect you from bullying – even by your subordinates. So why is ‘upward bullying’ acknowledged so little? And what can HR do about it?
It’s easy to envision a bully as someone in a position of power, abusing that power to victimise those under their command. However, those in management are not immune to being bullied themselves – far from it.
Maureen Kyne, workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination expert, has seen instances of ‘upward bullying’ throughout her career time and again.
“It could be that the formal power has been eroded from the team leader, or the perpetrator might have support from the higher authority within the business,” she says.
“[Upward bullies] can form cliques to undermine the person who’s in the leadership role. It’s really quite malicious. It’s an informal power that this person has over the person who is actually in power.”
Leading researcher in the field of workplace bullying Sara Branch, senior research fellow at Griffith University, has studied cases of upward bullying for over 20 years, yet notes in her work that “upwards bullying … does not appear to be recognised by organisations as an issue.”
As a result, it’s often the case that makeshift attempts to manage cases of upward bullying don’t go to plan.
“I once had a situation where a female manager was being bullied by a male subordinate,” Branch told HRM. “[Senior management] made the assumption that the reason why she was being bullied was because the manager was female. So they moved the female manager to a new role, and they brought in a male manager thinking he would be able to cope. But within six months, they had him in their office crying.”
What makes for an upward bully?
While many characteristics of upward bullying are similar to those of ‘downwards’ bullying – for instance, manipulation, verbal put-downs and gossip – Kyne and Branch note some unifying features of upward bullies that differentiate them from those who victimise those beneath them:
1. Their behaviour stays under the radar
Rather than exhibiting outright rudeness or disrespect, those who bully their managers are likely to turn to more insidious behaviour so their misconduct is harder to call out.
Kyne points to indirect tactics such as interrupting the flow of information as a prime example of these subtle forms of victimisation.
“One of the things I see is withholding information. It’s one of the key things to look for – if we’ve got information being withheld, those in leadership or management roles should be able to see that productivity is being impacted.”
“I find there is a higher sense of power that bullies have when they’re working from home. They’re prepared to stand up to their immediate manager a lot more.” – Maureen Kyne, workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination expert
That’s a key warning sign to look out for, she adds.
As procedures to tackle upward bullies are often either inadequate or non-existent, Branch notes that subtle acts of insubordination are difficult to punish.
“What [employers] tend to do is move the alleged bully around to another team. They’re sharing this virus of bad behaviour throughout the whole organisation, and they end up with an absolute mess.”
2. An upward bully rarely acts alone
While a ‘downward’ bully can usually act alone by leveraging their authority, upward bullies take a different approach.
“Generally, it’s not done by a single person,” says Kyne. “In most cases, it’s actually done through a mob. Unfortunately, sometimes [some members of] the mob don’t realise that they’re being manipulated as the messengers.”
The ‘mob’ responsible for the bullying often try to push the blame onto their victims as a means of undermining them.
“What actually happens is the person who is the actual perpetrator goes off to HR or the business owner and says, ‘I want to make a complaint about my boss’. And generally, it’s not just one complaint, they’ve actually got multiple. So it makes it look like it could even be serious misconduct.”
3. Formal procedures are brought into play
Branch’s work defines upward bullying as ‘specifically characterised by perpetrators using formal grievance systems to bully their managers.’
She explains that procedures for making complaints in many organisations don’t take into account that this type of behaviour might happen.
“In some cases I’ve seen, [the manager] isn’t allowed to put a grievance in against the staff member, all they can do is put disciplinary action in against them, which triggers a completely different process,” says Branch.
On the other hand, she points out, perpetrators have plenty of avenues to use formal proceedings against their managers.
“The actual grievance system becomes part of the bullying process. And the system allows that to happen.”
Bullies thrive in their safe space
While Kyne has been dealing with cases like these throughout her 20 years’ experience consulting businesses as a crisis strategist, she says the rise of remote work has given some employees more avenues to undermine and manipulate their managers.
Remote work gives employees more insight into the personal lives of their managers and this information is vulnerable to being manipulated.
“Generally, if people want to bully somebody, they do it in secret … On Zoom calls, you’ll have people who turn around and say, ‘Did you see Mary’s dirty window?’, or ‘Gee, her curtains are gawdy just like her.’ So all of a sudden, we’ve got this mob [mentality].
“I find there is a higher sense of power that bullies have when they’re working from home. They’re prepared to stand up to their immediate manager a lot more, or to the business owner, and blatantly say, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’”
Managers are afraid to come forward
Kyne notes certain scenarios where managers are especially vulnerable to upward bullying.
Firstly, when an employee is promoted to management based on good performance in a previous role, but the training they are given does not adequately prepare them to manage team members who set out to undermine them. She likens this to “throwing the pussycat into the lion’s den.”
According to Kyne, new managers are more likely to fall into the trap of giving away information that can be manipulated by bullies, since they might find team members’ interest in their personal life flattering and they want to be liked.
However, she points out that experienced managers are by no means immune to being manipulated or victimised by junior staff.
Even for a manager who has overseen a team for years, “new blood” entering the mix always has the potential to disturb the peace. And for these managers, the prospect of coming forward can be even more daunting.
“Somebody who has been in the role for a period of time and finds themselves in this situation [could feel] ashamed that they haven’t been able to manage this. And so they’ll let it fester. They’ll let the bullying take place.”
How should HR respond?
If the perpetrators of upward bullying use manipulation as a means to flip the situation around on their victims, how can HR know who to believe?
Kyne offers some strategies for HR.
1. Gather information from both sides
While HR’s instinct may be to take the word of the employee making the complaint, particularly if they are junior, she recommends asking plenty of questions before arriving at a conclusion.
“I would go back and look at the employee record of the person who the complaint is being made about. Don’t start an investigation immediately, step back for a moment and get to know more about the person.
“Speak with other people. Ask the questions: ‘I know you’ve worked with Mary in the past, tell me a bit about her. How did you find her? What was her character like?’
“Also look at the character of the person who’s making the complaint. What have they missed out on recently? Have they made similar complaints in the past?”
2. Try to eliminate bias
If the decision is made to launch an investigation, Kyne stresses the importance of impartiality. This may even mean looking beyond the internal resources of HR and senior management.
“The perpetrator, the person who is the bully, may have developed a relationship with the person they want to make a complaint to. They’re manipulating the situation so they look like the good guy.
“If you don’t know that person well, and you believe you can conduct an investigation without bias, then absolutely have that discussion. If you don’t believe you’re capable of conducting that investigation without bias, then it might even be the business owner or a senior executive [who conducts the investigation]. If you don’t have capacity within the business, then get external support.”
3. Empower employees at all levels to report bullying
Kyne’s model for welcoming employee concerns takes the open-door policy a few steps further.
“Whenever we do workplace behaviour training, we implement a ‘speak up’ model for everybody across the business,” she says. “We ask, ‘How do we welcome those concerns?’, ‘How do we embrace somebody coming in and having a chat to us about something?’”
She also suggests HR professionals add ‘upward bullying’ to their vocabulary and policies.
“It’s really important for anybody within the leadership team to undertake training around this type of bullying. I want to have upward bullying as a definition in our legislation.”
If a case of upward bullying turns out to be more than just a one-off, Branch urges organisations to take a big-picture approach.
“Organisations need to recognise that upward bullying happens. Then they need to start learning from it. They need to stop making the assumption that workplace bullying is about interpersonal conflict. It’s not.
“Yes, there is an interpersonal conflict going on, but it’s not just an interpersonal conflict – it’s a conflict that is occurring within a context, and the organisation needs to consider their role in that context. And organisational learning is the only way that you can go about doing that.”
For anyone looking for further tips on managing upward bullying at work, both Branch and Kyne are happy for you to reach out on LinkedIn to discuss this further. If you’re looking for a more formalised learning experience, you can sign up to AHRI’s bullying and harassment short course, which is taking place on 24 August.