Back in the late 1980s, I taught classes on workplace diversity and sexual harassment prevention and awareness for law enforcement. I can’t begin to tell you what an interesting experience that was. For example, the deputy chief of a large agency once told me that the department’s only female officer “deserved” to be sexually harassed because she wore “tight shorts” in the workout room and, therefore, was “asking for it.” A commander had the dispatch center television set to the Playboy Channel on the midnight shift because it entertained the male dispatchers—and because “no one ever complained,” obviously, no one was offended.
In this class, we dealt with racial issues, gender issues and everything in between, and believe me, some days I had my hands full as a facilitator. But we still managed to have fun. There was always plenty of room for debate, discussion and yes, even some entertainment. We could laugh, shout and tease, and, in the end, I think everyone learned a little something about each other.
In the 1990s, I stopped teaching those topics and focused more on career and officer survival. Why? One of the reasons was that everyone had just gotten too darn “sensitive.” The term “politically correct” was starting to be tossed around, and I just didn’t have the stomach for all that.
I’m now starting to see a new trend, however, a disturbing trend, in the way employees are being treated. It seems that we’ve learned to be careful about making sexual or racial references, and we’re even learning to be appropriately sensitive, or at least better informed, about issues of sexual orientation, physical handicaps and religious freedom, to name just a few areas. But if an employee wants to verbally attack another and not get into legal hot water, they can become a good old-fashioned bully.
The New Threat
When we think about a bully , it generally conjures images of a schoolyard thug who steals the younger kids’ lunch money and pushes them down at recess. In the workplace, however, a bully is someone who viciously and pervasively attacks others verbally, and they often get away with it because most of today’s bullies are careful not to use race, gender or other “protected” statuses as the basis for their attacks.
Let’s face it: In a fast-paced, rough-and-tumble, paramilitary atmosphere like law enforcement, we tend to be a little less sensitive to the feelings of our co-workers. Look at how we treat our rookies. There’s not a police department in the country where the veteran officers don’t “haze” them a little bit. Oh, we take care of our rookies. We train them, we help keep them safe and out of trouble, and we eventually bring them into the family, but in the beginning we also harass them. We call them “FNGs” (which stands for “fabulous new guys,” of course) and we make them take on the nastiest or the most boring assignments. They become the butt of our jokes in roll call, and they get called names like “kid” and “junior”—or worse. Sometimes they get yelled at. Heck, when I was a rookie, we had a sergeant on my department who wouldn’t even speak to you until you had two years on the job.
All of this was part of being new, and it was generally harmless and well-intentioned. However, when good-natured teasing turns into what European researchers call “psychological abuse,” it becomes a problem—not just for the individual, but for the entire agency. It can affect morale and productivity, and it may cost your agency thousands of dollars in litigation and/or lost work time.
The Costs of Bullying
A court recently fined a company $325,000 ( Raess v. Doescher ) for an extreme case of “workplace bullying.” The case passed through several courts before the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the jury award. An employee claimed he was being severely harassed by a supervisor, well-known to the organization as a jerk. In the most extreme instance, the supervisor allegedly advanced toward him, yelling and swearing, “with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face and popping veins.” The employee sued for assault and won. We may soon see more of these cases popping up, and law enforcement is as susceptible as any profession out there.
Bullying can cross all the lines of your organizational chart. Not only can a supervisor bully a subordinate, but we often see peers bully each other, and sometimes an “untouchable” subordinate will bully and intimidate members of management. Police departments are often hesitant to take on a bully at any level because this type of intimidation doesn’t always fit into any one category of “actionable bad behavior.” After all, isn’t yelling, swearing and “teasing” a part of the background noise in virtually any police agency? An individual who complains about being bullied will probably be seen as a weakling, a whiner or worse, as that overused but favorite catch-phrase, “not a team player.”
Bullies tend to be full of excuses for their obnoxious behavior. “I had a bad day,” “I was just kidding,” and “It’s not me; it’s my hormones” are just a few. We used to believe that bullies were people with low self-esteem who had to boost themselves by attacking others, but in the book Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors , author Robin Lowalski cites work done by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues who argue that bullies are narcissists with unstable self-esteem who are “extremely sensitive to criticism, personal affront, or insult” and become aggressive and attack others rather than change their favorable view of themselves. These are the same breed of cops that often become what Dr. Kevin Gilmartin calls “victim-based thinkers”—people who have a grandiose idea of their own self-importance and their worth to the agency.
Put an End to “Adam Henrys”
Dr. Robert Sutton wrote an excellent book to help organizations build a more civilized workplace. The book is described as “The definitive guide to working with—and surviving—Bullies, Creeps, Jerks, Tyrants, Tormentors, Despots, Backstabbers, Egomaniacs and the others who do their best to destroy you at work.” As Dr. Sutton found out, there’s really only one word to sum up all of those personalities, and that’s why his bestseller is titled The No Asshole Rule .
Since the a-word in the title does not fall under the umbrella of appropriate workplace lingo, well-known police trainer (and my husband) Dave Smith and his partner Jim Glennon adopted law enforcement’s euphemism, “Adam Henrys,” to describe a typical workplace bully.
Do you have any “Adam Henrys” at your department? Worse yet, might you be one? Go to Dr. Sutton’s Web site (www.bobsutton.typepad.com) and take the “ARSE” test. He also provides tips for surviving and dealing with “Adam Henrys” at work; he’ll probably make you laugh, and he’ll definitely make you think. I hope I did the same.
1. Raess v. Doescher, 85 N.E. 2nd 119 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006)
2. Lowalski R: Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors , 1st edition. Yale University Press, 2003.
3. Sutton RI: The No Asshole Rule , 1st edition. Business Plus, 2007.