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No one wants to hire a bully as a supervisor to abuse an employer’s human resources. Not when they could hire a professional who is trustworthy, on point, and leading his or her employees to productive ends instead. Making a bully-conscious hiring decision can be the difference between hiring a team leader or becoming known for having initiated an internal war.

Being irascible or demanding is not what defines a bully boss. For good or bad, these bosses are trying to get the job done. Bosses who are merely suffering from stress or substance abuse problems are also not what we consider classic bullies. And bullies can’t be found by looking at the extreme ends of a scale measuring apparent aggression and passivity against each other--they can appear to be both and neither.

Instead, bullies are political operatives furthering a political agenda. They exploit their employer’s power over subordinates for their individual purposes. They are institutional renegades who exhibit a pattern of bullying behavior over time--not isolated incidents of bad behavior. Despite the impressions they create, they are not interested in furthering the employer’s mission or its practical applications. They are on their own mission: the conquest of individuals as a matter of personal compulsion. According to Webster’s, a bully is "a person who hurts, frightens, or tyrannizes over those who are smaller or weaker." At work, a supervisor does not have to be brutish to tyrannize an employee--sometimes quiet micromanaging will have the same effect.

Bullying bosses believe themselves to be special. Fortunately, being different is what makes them identifiable to the rest of us. They fundamentally lack the basic human capacity to connect with others. This is what makes them both dysfunctional and dangerous. As a replacement for real engagement with coworkers, they bully down and charm up. They are very good at what they do.

Special Concerns for Hiring Managers    
Hiring managers who want to screen out the bullies have to be vigilant in their inquiry beyond social norms. Workplaces are bully magnets. Bullies are drawn to an employment opportunity for reasons beyond those occupational. Businesses give them fuel in the form of institutional power to exploit. The workplace is a place where they are officially given legitimized authority to do what bullies do. They get to exercise their malice and enjoy the good feeling of controlling others, while receiving pay and prestige in the process. Once there, the institution customarily protects them.

Being types who define themselves by external markers, the abusers who wiggle their way into workplaces are granted a title and prestige within a hierarchical institutional context. Bullies need workplaces in order to define themselves. Outside the structure of the workplace, bullies are not quite anybody. Once inside the employment world, though, a typical bully might have three supervisory jobs in his or her career, and may supervise fifteen employees in each position over the term of each job. He or she would thus have a significant and negative impact on at least three employers and forty-five employees, including as many as five specially targeted employees. No bully or abuser who remained in the community could dream of having that kind of impact. Bad hiring decisions in general create costs beyond reliable calculation.
How to Smoke Out a Prospective Bully Hire  


The first thing an interview panel needs to know is that bullies are as likely to be female as male. When one knows what to look for, bullies are easy to spot in the workplace. However, it can be tricky to identify a bully before one sees him or her in action. Interviews present multiple opportunities to use a bully’s overconfidence as leverage to discover his or her true self. Here are some tips.

Don't rely on your "gut" instincts. Hiring decisions based on "gut instincts" provide bullies with their very best forum. Bullies are extremely adept at manipulating authority figures--saying what they think a higher-up wants to hear.

Look for spontaneous exchanges. Bullies are not skilled at relating to the people presently in the room with them--the interview panel. Does the candidate participate in the normal back-and-forth of conversation, demonstrating the basics of human exchange? Or does the interviewee have to carefully calculate a response to match what seems to be expected of him or her?

Look for empathy. To be a good leader, one should have an above-average capacity for empathy. Empathy makes compassion and understanding possible, and is the difference between a person merely hearing words and a person actually appreciating another person. Ask the candidate to recount a particularly sensitive personnel problem in the past. Does the candidate's answer reflect compassion for a subordinate, or does it have elements of bragging, triumph, or rigid authoritarianism? When bona fide leaders are faced with a difficulty, they stop, look, and listen--and then devise a plan furthering the employer’s interests. Not so with bullies.

Turn on your know-it-all meter. Ask a question a candidate will probably not know the answer to--but make it seem as though he or she should. The particularly forthright will admit they don't know. Most will “fudge” it. But bullies will generalize unduly. Bullies may even boldly attempt to steer the entire discussion in what they calculate to be the most advantageous direction for them.


Try the "sweet and sour" routine. Bullies are uncannily good at “reading” people. Their special, sometimes odd charm is a product of this attribute. Of course, all candidates strive to impress their interviewers, but bullies are a breed apart at picking up even the smallest of clues they observe in body language and voices. As a counter-measure, consider presenting a “sweet and sour” front (a mellower version of “good cop/bad cop”). Assign roles beforehand. A bully will be unable to find workable meaning in a morass of “clues.” He or she will either scramble or assume a grandiose pose. Healthy candidates, on the other hand, will simply be who they are. Bullies don't know how to do this well, because they define themselves in terms of power and in comparison with others.

Make intelligent use of background checks. The data employers will have available before interviews will always be thinner than preferred. However, make the best of what you have. Background checks are useful beyond being just pass-fail tests. They are a wellspring of specific evidence that can be used to measure the veracity of a candidate generally. Bullies utterly lack veracity. At no point during an interview should you let the candidate know what pieces of information you actually do and don’t have about him or her. Test the interviewer's truth-telling against what you know to be facts.

Prompt the candidate to volunteer corrective information. In the interview, purposefully misstate key facts from the candidate's resume in order to elicit a corrective response or not. You can make customary allowances for normal puffery. But if allowed, a future bullying boss will exceed allowable parameters for ambiguity to slip by unchallenged--when stopping them and correcting them was in fact warranted.

Read another interview source, if possible. Before making a final hiring decision, read a transcript of a candidate’s testimony when questioned in a deposition or some other context. This widens the view of a candidate from a narrow one a bully would neatly fit to your interview, into a broader perspective that includes how the candidate operated in a different context with different objectives. There can probably no better way to discover a bully among your job candidates.

More Bully Red Flags
If you notice one or more of the following characteristics during an interview, definitely discuss the possible implications with others on the interview panel.
When describing past positive events, does he speak in the first person plural (“we”), as if he were one participant among others, either sharing in or assuming responsibility for the outcome? Or, does he speak in the first person singular (“I”), as if he were wholly responsible for the positive outcomes? If an outcome was negative, does he distance himself from the process, perhaps with “I told them so”? For the bullies, it’s “all about them”--not the team and not the work itself.
When recounting a particularly serious dilemma for a past employer, does she evidence continuing loyalty to the employer, albeit perhaps not to all of its employees? A bully won’t.
Ostensibly in the name of getting something accomplished, does a candidate proudly tell stories of cutting management out-of-the-loop either directly or indirectly by disregarding management-control procedures? Does he portray himself as heroic?
If caught in a tough spot, does the candidate affect an affinity with the interviewers as peers? That is typical disingenuous, inappropriate bully behavior. Socially stable candidates do not feel the need to do this.
As a candidate recalls her work history, does she pay undue attention to controversies? Does she place herself at the center of them, maybe even generating some? Bullies are conflict generators.
Does he habitually cast dispersions against groups or individuals, evidencing he lives at a distance from people generally? If given an opportunity to demean others, how does he respond? It’s far easier for a bully to cut others down with nonsense than it is to develop one’s own or anyone’s substantive value.
Bullies will be vague well beyond the norm. Their obfuscations, misdirections, and over-generalizations will be unmistakable to anyone paying attention to the threat the bullies pose to operations.
Know that none of these standing alone constitutes proof that a candidate is a bully. But with each inappropriate or even uncomfortable response, a failure of the interviewee to connect with the interviewers is a problem whether the candidate is a bully or not. The same techniques that expose the odd bully in our midst also make apparent candidates who are leaders and those who could be.

Robert Mueller, JD, is an expert on labor-management law, a widely recognized workplace conflicts counselor and consultant, and the author of Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide (bullyingbosses.com, $17.50).


Copyright © 2007 Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide