Column: Risk Management

Upward Bullying

By: | August 4, 2014 • 3 min read
Joanna Makomaski is a specialist in innovative enterprise risk management methods and implementation techniques. She can be reached at riskletters@lrp.com.

Recently, I had coffee with an old work colleague. He had started a new senior management job for a manufacturing company about a year and half prior. I almost did not recognize him when he walked into the coffee shop. He looked tired, resigned and truly depressed. I could not believe this was the same vivacious leader that I once worked with.

I asked how things were going at his “new” job. Almost as though he was embarrassed, he told me his story.

He said he was struggling. He was dealing with a veteran employee that clearly had sought his job prior to his arrival. To date, the veteran had not reconciled the fact that he did not get the role. This employee has been with the organization for more than 26 years.

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Since my friend’s arrival at the company, this employee has challenged and undermined him. The employee pushed other employees to deliberately not meet my friend’s deadlines, undermine his meeting agendas and act disrespectfully.

When my friend tried to manage these behaviors, his efforts seemed to only make things worse. The group, through the encouragement of the ringleader, filed false complaints about my friend to human resources. Some of the allegations were quite serious and difficult to disprove.

When the complaints were investigated, my friend found himself trying to defend unfounded he-said/she-said allegations. He told me that HR gave too much credence to these allegations. As a new manager, he felt he had little protection from his own employees’ intimidating and bullying tactics.

He felt alone. He did not share his feelings with higher management as he believed that admitting he was struggling to control his own staff was admitting failure. He wanted to impress senior management and assert himself in his new workplace. But instead, the whole experience was giving him bouts of anxiety, sleeplessness and shaken confidence. He now was thinking of resigning.

I was so struck by his story. We tend to perceive intimidating behaviors as moving only downward, where a person of authority victimizes a junior person. But clearly, managers can be targets of troubling behaviors in the workplace on the part of their own subordinates. Colloquially, this behavior has been known as “boss bashing;” experts now call it “upward bullying.”

Upward bullying is attracting increased attention as organizations realize the risks attached to the toxic effects this behavior has on an organization’s culture, morale and productivity.

The reality is that most companies will always have groups of lax employees whose performance is under scrutiny. Or they will have pockets of resentful staff who have been denied promotions or pay raises. These employees may retaliate by abusing their managers or filing false complaints against them.

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Does your organization pay attention to this risk? Are policies in place to protect the safety and welfare of the leaders who are there to drive success in your business?

The costs associated with upward bullying can be substantial. Consider how much time and energy is dedicated to addressing false allegations, the increased absenteeism of line managers, the overall effect of undermined leadership and the compromised ability of leaders to push an organization to achieve its objectives.
Bottom line, we clearly need stronger risk mitigation and support systems that defend employees at all the ranks of an organization.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

In the Fast-Paced World of Retail, This Risk Manager Strives to Mitigate Risks Proactively and Keep Senior Leaders Informed

Janine Kral works to identify and mitigate risks, building strong partnerships with leaders and ensuring they see her as support rather than a blocker. 
By: | October 29, 2018 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

My very first paid job was working on my uncle’s ranch in British Columbia in the summers. He had cattle, horses and grapes — an unusual combo. But my first real job out of college was as a multi-line claims adjuster at Liberty Mutual.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

Right out of college I applied for a job that turned out to be a claims adjuster at Liberty Mutual. I accepted because they were offering six weeks of training in Southern California, and at the time that sounded really fun. I spent about three years at Liberty Mutual and then I spent a short period of time at a smaller regional insurance company that hired me to start a workers’ compensation claims administration program.

I was hired at Nordstrom as the Washington Region Risk Manager, which was my first job in risk management. When I started at Nordstrom, the risk management department had about five people, and over the years it has grown to about 75. I’ve been vice president for 11 years.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

I would say that technology has probably been the biggest change. When I started many years ago, it was all paper and no RMIS.

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R&I: What risks does the retail industry face that are unique?

We deal with a lot of people — employees and customers. With physical brick and mortar settings, there are the unique exposures with people moving in and out in a public environment. And of course, with ecommerce, we have a lot of customer and employee data, which creates cyber risk — which is not necessarily a unique risk in today’s environment.

R&I: Can you describe your approach to working with senior leaders and front-line staff alike to further risk management initiatives?

It starts with keeping the pulse of what’s happening with the business. Retail moves really fast. In order to identify and mitigate risks proactively, we identify top risk areas and topics, and then we ensure that we have strong partnerships with the leaders responsible for those areas. Trust is critical, ensuring that leaders see us as a support rather than a blocker.

R&I: What role does technology play in your company’s approach to risk management?

Janine Kral, claims adjuster, Nordstrom

We have an internal risk management information system that all of our locations report events into — every type of incident is reported, whether insured or uninsured. Most of these events are managed internally by risk management, and our guidelines require that prevention be analyzed on each one. Having all event data in one system allows us to use the data for trending and also helps us better predict what may happen in the future, and who we need to work with to mitigate risks.

R&I: What advice might you give to students or other aspiring risk managers?

My son is a sophomore in college, and I tell him and his friends all the time not to rule out insurance as a career opportunity. My advice is to cast a wide net and do your homework. Research all the different types of opportunities. Read a lot — articles, industry magazines, LinkedIn. Be proactive and reach out to people you find interesting and ask them about their careers. Don’t be shy and wait for people and opportunities to come to you. Ask questions. Build networks. Be curious and keep an open mind.

R&I: What are your goals for the next five to 10 years of your career?

I have always been passionate about continuous improvement. I want to continue to find ways to add value to my company and to this industry.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

My favorite book is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It’s a true story about a man who was in prison in Australia after being convicted of armed robbery, and he escaped to India. While in India, he passed himself off as a doctor in a slum. It’s a really interesting story, because this is a convicted criminal who ends up helping others. I am not always successful in getting others to read the book because it’s 1,000 pages and definitely a commitment.

R&I: What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever eaten at?

Fiorella’s in Newton, Massachusetts. Great Italian food and a great overall experience.

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R&I: What is your favorite drink?

“Sister Carol.” I have no idea what is in it, and I can only get it at a local bar in Seattle. It’s green but it’s delicious.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Skydiving. Not tandem and without any sort of communication from the ground. Scary standing on a wing of a plane, but very peaceful once the chute opened, slowly floating down by myself.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

I can’t think of one individual person. For me, the real heroes are people who have a positive attitude in the face of adversity. People who are resilient no matter what life brings them.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

It’s rewarding to help solve problems and help people. I am proud of the support that my team provides others. &




Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at kdwyer@lrp.com.