Is Your Boss a Bully?

She assigns you the worst projects, favors your colleagues, even slams your appearance. Demanding, yes, but has your boss crossed the line?

I liked that she was always direct with me," says Annabel Gindi, 25, of her former boss, a no-BS book editor who represents several A-list authors. Sure, she could be a bit of a pill, eviscerating Gindi's grammar on e-mails; leaving her evening voice mails that began, "Oh, I thought you'd still be working"; insisting on a morning chai latte with just the right dash of vanilla. (She once made Gindi reimburse her $5 for a latte that arrived cold.) But Gindi swallowed these small indignities without complaint — after all, on any given day she could find herself talking on the phone with a celebrity writer, even taking a first pass on manuscripts at the boss's request.

About six months in, Gindi says her boss began asking her to handle personal errands. At first it was babysitting her kids; then she asked her to stand in line outside the Apple store at midnight so she could be one of the first to snag an iPad. She critiqued Gindi's lunch choices, gave her the silent treatment when she took issue with her work, and even bragged about how she had blackballed a difficult writer. The effect was chilling. "She gave me the clear impression that she could ruin my career if I pissed her off," says Gindi. "I felt I had no recourse but to suck it up."

Everybody's got a bad-boss story, but Gindi is among an estimated 35 percent of American workers who say they've actually been bullied on the job, according to a 2010 Zogby poll. They describe the wholesale torment of repeated verbal abuse, public humiliation, intimidation, and favoritism. The experience can be so brutal that in 30 percent of cases, the victims suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (nightmares, cold sweats, flashbacks). Equally disturbing is the role women play in perpetuating the problem: Female bullies target women in an astonishing 80 percent of cases. "Women can be really inhumane to each other," says social psychologist Gary Namie, coauthor of The Bully-Free Workplace. "The fact is, the ambitious, aggressive, even Machiavellian woman is the one who gets ahead in the workplace today — not the girl who pays attention and follows the rules. Those less dominant types are unlikely to confront bullies, so they make easy marks."

That's what happened three years ago to then-25-year-old Jennifer Carmody, an L.A.-based junior sales rep for a denim label. Just two weeks after landing the job, she was tapped to oversee the entire West Coast division after her boss quit unexpectedly. Out of her depth, she relied on the know-how of her seasoned New York counterpart, who made sure Carmody knew her place in the pecking order. When Carmody phoned her with questions, she was called "dumb" or "stupid." At trade shows, the woman had Carmody fetch coffee and assemble complicated displays while she yakked on the phone. Once, at an event, she ordered Carmody to model wildly unflattering high-rise skinny jeans for the trade press to photograph. Carmody complied, humiliated. "The economy was starting to change, and I was in no position to lose my job. I couldn't get on anyone's bad side," she explains.

Last year, Carmody was laid off — the news came as a major relief. A few months later, she received a Facebook friend request from her former bully. She instantly regretted accepting it. "I get stomachaches when I see her name in the news feed," Carmody says. "I want to defriend her, but I'm still so petrified of her."

The problem, says Namie, is that office bullies rarely face consequences for their bad behavior, even when it's on display for everyone to see. Not so for the victims who, in nearly 40 percent of cases, invite retaliation — demotions, transfers, or worse bullying — when they speak up. It's no wonder, then, that less than 1 percent of employees intervene on a tormented colleague's behalf, according to a 2008 poll conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute. "Nobody wants to be next in line for abuse," says Namie. "And why would you get involved anyway, since management usually writes off bullying complaints as, 'That's why they call it work and not a vacation.'"

Television clip researcher Dianna Linden, 43, says she endured eight months of hell at the hands of her producer boss, who routinely called her at home at all hours of the night with work requests, sent her scathing e-mails for various presumed slights, and bad-mouthed her to colleagues. (Bosses bully for all sorts of reasons — envy, insecurity. Linden thinks her boss singled her out because, having worked with him before, she knew of several embarrassing personal indiscretions he'd made earlier in his career.) Linden discussed her issues with the company president, with whom she'd always enjoyed a collegial relationship. "He told me to keep doing a great job, that things would get better. But then when my show got picked up for another season, I was let go," Linden recalls.

Eleven states are currently considering so-called Healthy Workplace Bills, which would hold companies liable for a hostile work environment, though legal experts say these are unlikely to pass anytime soon. Your only recourse right now is to put up or move on. The good news: Anyone who's ever left the vise grip of a mean boss usually describes life afterward as a career El Dorado. "I channeled my anger into finding something better, which I did," says Gindi, the put-upon book editor's assistant, who landed a junior editor job at a prominent publishing house. "For so long I thought leaving was, you know, like letting the terrorists win. But I won in the end. I moved on to bigger and better and never looked back."