When a workplace rivalry becomes war

Monster has been exploring the subject of workplace rivalry. When we asked for stories on career rivalries, we heard a lot about what happens when healthy competition escalates into something harmful

When a workplace rivalry becomes war

With Monster’s most recent survey on rivalries in the workplace, we asked for respondents to share their specific stories of having a combatant on the job.

We envisioned “rivalries” to signify equal competition between two parties, for that next promotion, or to get the better assignments. Many of the stories we got back owed little to healthy on-the-job competition.

What you told us were stories about workplaces and colleagues that were anything but collegial. In many cases, rivalry intensified all the way to bullying.

So it’s with some surprise that only 20 percent of those who answered the poll on Monster.com said they left a job because of a workplace rival. And, only 26 percent said they’d considered leaving.

What happens when it gets really difficult? The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) published a study in February that showed 27 percent of Americans have suffered workplace bullying. A staggering 72 percent of respondents to the WBI survey said they were aware workplace bullying is taking place.

WBI Director Gary Namie said the results of Monster’s survey were on the surface fascinating, but a deeper look reflects the bleak nature of the workplace for many who have experienced bullying.

“It’s probably indicative of how nervous and anxious people are in the contemporary workplace,” he says. “They don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

WBI defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is either threatening, humiliating or intimidating, ‘work interference’ — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.”

Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Monster Lise Poulos says, from a company human resources standpoint, a claim of bullying is handled delicately.

“Companies strive to provide their teams with a safe and collaborative environment,” Poulos says. “When a case of bullying is identified and an employee feels uncomfortable and does not want to come to work, we must investigate quickly and objectively. Based on the severity of the situation, a resolution can range from coaching to termination.”

The issue is inexact but often takes the following format: An employee who is bullied feels he or she has no place to turn due to fear of backlash — the bullying getting worse — or putting his or her career in jeopardy.

“It’s about the F-word: fear,” Namie says.

Learn when bullying becomes a legal issue at work.

And it’s not that the subjects of this particular survey misinterpreted our question about workplace rivalries, it’s that bullying is at times perpetuated by lateral peers in the workplace.

One respondent to Monster’s request, William, sent in a striking narrative about how a co-worker appears to be his rival after unleashing some truly nefarious intellectual theft at an internal presentation.

At the end of his story, the respondent hits on an important point: He left to find another job.

Granted, our poll asked if anyone has left due to a rival, not a bully, but given the nature of the narratives we received from our related survey, is a rivalry just bullying in disguise?

And if so — no matter what you call it — finding another job can often be a necessary course of action.

Another respondent, Carl, did just that. He told a story about being undercut by a new manager who, as Carl tells it, was firmly aligned with their boss. Carl describes the situation as one in which he was pushed out, but he did eventually leave the company.

“I have learned that if you are unhappy, make changes ASAP or it will take over your life,” he said in an email. “So yes, I am happy.”

And some, despite debilitating micromanagement and negative feedback, relied on the support of co-workers.

Chelsea worked for a law firm out of college. She wrote a story about being bullied so harshly by a manager she felt utterly dehumanized.

“She went so far as to tell others in the office that I was incompetent and that I couldn't do anything right.”

Simultaneously, a different boss praised her work. Despite the mental anguish Chelsea sustained via one boss, she knew something was amiss given the info from the other.

Chelsea does not elaborate much beyond that, but she did mention she ultimately left for a better job. She even came away with an optimistic outlook following the dreadful situation.

“It was a good learning experience for me, but were it not for a few co-workers at that firm being supportive and telling me to ignore that overly competitive woman, I would have been much more miserable and would have left sooner.”

It’s hard to take any lesson from the stories we were told in response to the survey. But the closest we can come is to buy into the idea that we enter into nearly all work voluntarily. And while our paychecks and benefits are extremely important, and to a degree central to our lives, we are free to leave to find another, hopefully better, job at any given moment.

“It’s the healthiest thing you can do,” says Namie, the WBI director. “You begin to believe you’ll never have another job, but that’s not true. If [bullying] is killing you then you’ve got to move on.”