Last week I read an article about a bullied teen who committed suicide. Sadly, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. The story was unusual though, in that the teen’s boss at his fast food job was charged with involuntary manslaughter as the result of his death. According to the Washington Post article linked above, a Dairy Queen manager named Harley Branham tormented her teenage employee, Kenneth Suttner, forcing him to clean the floor tiles by hand and even throwing a cheeseburger at him. He was also bullied by classmates at school, and an inquest found the school negligent in failing to prevent bullying—however, none of his classmates have been charged with a crime. (I’m assuming this has something to do with the classmates being minors, while Suttner’s boss was supposed to be a responsible adult.)
This story bothered me, not just because it’s sad when a life ends in suicide, and not just because bullying in school is a serious problem that’s led to other teen deaths. It also bothers me because I know what it’s like to have a bully for a boss. I know bullies don’t instantly grow up and become upstanding citizens the second they graduate from high school, they don’t learn their lesson and stop treating other people like shit—they just get a job, and often, they go on to become someone’s boss.
I spent years working in retail, or as I like to call it, hell. For most of that time it was hell because of the customers. Many of those people were also bullies, but that’s another post. Right now I want to talk about the bully boss I had to deal with. We’ll call him Bob—name has been changed to protect the guilty.
When Bosses Are Bullies
Bob was a bad boss in a number of ways. First of all, he never let anyone around him finish a sentence, ever. So basically you had someone who was supposed to be in charge with no clue what was going on. (Who does that remind me of? But that’s also a post for another day.)
Bob loved to taunt the cashiers, something no one warned me about when I took the job. However, our logistics supervisor told me months later that I was the first cashier who didn’t quit in tears after a few days of Bob’s bullshit. Apparently there had been many complaints to HR, but no one there gave a shit because they could always find someone else willing to work a crappy job for minimum wage.
Where do I start? There was the time he told me I should try to get good at being a cashier because I was too fat to be a stripper. (Did I mention he was so overweight he looked like his blood type was chocolate milkshake? Hello pot, meet kettle.) Then there was the Apron of Shame incident, when he got pissed because I didn’t take the trash out the night before. So he found this ugly-ass apron with our store logo on it—no one even knew why we had it, because we sure didn’t cook anything in that office supply store, but it had been lying around forever. So he told me I had to wear the “apron of shame” all day. I really wanted to strangle him with the fucking thing, but what can I say? I needed the money.
Apparently wearing the apron wasn’t punishment enough, so Bob walked around yelling “Apron of Shame” every time he passed in the vicinity of the register, even when there were customers around. Some of them gave him strange looks. I was embarrassed at first, but as it went on I realized it made Bob look a lot worse than me. So then I proudly told ever single customer that I was wearing the Apron of Shame because I was a bad cashier. Some of them probably thought I was joking until Bob yelled, “Apron of Shame!” I hoped he’d eventually get embarrassed and shut the fuck up.
Instead, our logistics manager walked in on him yelling “Apron of Shame” from the other side of the store and demanded I take off the apron before someone complained to corporate and she got another call from HR.
I’m thinking that’s probably the point where the other cashiers quit in tears. But me, I’m not much of a crier—there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it’s a level one manipulation move that we all learn the day we’re born, and by the time you reach adulthood you should have leveled up to more sophisticated methods. I come from a family of liars, thieves, and manipulators, so I leveled up early and haven’t had to rely on opening up the waterworks since. As for quitting, well, my bank account wouldn’t allow me to do that.
So, I plotted revenge, and eventually, I got it. Like I said, HR didn’t give a rat’s ass if a bunch of cashiers quit. I don’t care what bullshit any HR department spews about “We’re all one big happy family,” or “We put our people first,” or whatever. The truth is, those departments exist to prevent lawsuits, and the people in them care only about the bottom line.
I knew a guy like Bob wasn’t following all the rules and would eventually do something that constituted a fire-able offense, and sure enough, he did. HR doesn’t care if you treat your employees like shit, but they sure care if you steal from the company! Bob apparently thought no one would rat him out because most of the people he hadn’t run off were too cowed to do anything about it. I remember telling the cashier supervisor—we’ll call her Sheri—about the unauthorized discounts he gave out to his friends. (That may sound innocent but it’s a huge money-suck in retail, and most stores consider it a form of employee theft. Remember, the one thing the suits in corporate care about is that precious bottom line.) Sheri tsk-tsked, shook her head, and said, “He shouldn’t be doing that, but I don’t want to get him in trouble. Just forget it.”
Well, the hell with her. I went over her head to our new store manager, who had just given everyone this bullshit speech about how he wanted to fix all the store’s problems and wanted us all to feel free to share our thoughts on how to do that. Not that I trusted him as far as I could throw him, but I figured if he blew me off I could call him on his bullshit. If I got fired, I’d get unemployment and not have to put up with Bob anymore.
As it turned out, the new store manager was dying to get rid of Bob, who he correctly saw as a massive liability. He never stopped thanking me for ratting the guy out, and he even got me a $300 bonus. (The store was big on rewarding people who told on their thieving coworkers. It was actually better for the bottom line to pay people to be stool pigeons than to let their coworkers continue to steal.)
Also, because I’m a writer, I knew that Bob would one day be a character in something, and last year, I wrote a story in which I quite literally turned him into a troll. I didn’t realize how much I still hated the guy until I wrote that story. But then I realized it wasn’t “Bob” I was really mad at. After all, I got even with him. But what about all the other Bobs who still have jobs, who still get to abuse their employees? This isn’t an uncommon story, and sadly, no one cares unless and until it ends in tragedy. I’m mad at all the people who employ Bobs and don’t care if they bully their employees.
What to Do About Bullying in the Workplace
But what are you supposed to do if your boss isn’t stupid enough to get caught doing something the company actually disapproves of? What should you do if you’re stuck dealing with a bully for a boss? How can we stop cyber bullying? How do we stop bullying in schools if we can’t stop it in workplaces as adults?
I have a few suggestions on how to stop a bully boss at work. First, we have to remember that bullies are not happy people, and they are trying to make everyone else as miserable as they are. How do bullies feel when they bully? I’m not a mind reader, but one day when Bob wasn’t around, I went snooping through his desk drawer, and I found a collection of pill bottles. I didn’t recognize the drug names so I Googled them. Every one was either an anti-depressant or an anti-anxiety medication. This guy was on so many happy pills, he should have been singing and dancing and farting rainbows, but he wasn’t. No amount of pharmaceuticals could stop him from being a miserable person who sought to make everyone else as miserable as he was. The thing is, if we let them make us miserable, we’re letting them win (and we’re not really making them any happier, either). The worst thing you can do to a bully is act like he/she doesn’t bother you, because it kills their buzz. Acting like you don’t care is probably the best way to stop a bully boss at work—or at least stop them from bothering you. Unfortunately, then they may move on to another target.
How Society Encourages Bullying
The problem is, we have become a society that rewards bullying in adults—we reward bullies with the corner office or a managerial position at Dairy Queen or a free meal for throwing fries at the restaurant staff. At the very least, we look the other way. We don’t think about punishing bullies until something awful happens. What if we set a good example and stopped rewarding workplace bullies?
In my next post, I’ll talk some more about how we reward bully bosses—and customers—and how we can stop bullying in schools by not doing that. For now, I’ll say that we should punish all the bully bosses in our world, not just the ones who come into the spotlight because of a tragedy. In the meantime, what do you think is an effective way to deal with bullying?