Let’s Discuss: Big 4 Bullies

By | July 11, 2013

Yes, our last two posts are stark reminders that we are smack dab in the middle of performance evaluation season. It can be a stressful time of year because you'll be forced to reflect on things that you'd rather forget. 

Often times what you'd like to forget is some of the people you've had to work alongside. If you're new to public accounting, you may just be thanking your lucky stars that you managed to survive a particular project that involved a co-worker from hell, but for the veterans out there, you know full well that asshole can be a NEMESIS, who has successful made you the fall guy or gal; someone who has systematically stood in your way, both figuratively and maybe even literally. And guess what? While you're taking the blame, their superiors are gazing at them proudly! 

In a rather disheartening study, a team of researchers led by Darren C. Treadway, of the University at Buffalo School of Management, found that many workplace bullies receive positive evaluations from their supervisors and achieve high levels of career success, despite organizational efforts to curtail bullying.
 
The researchers sought to study the relationship between workplace bullying and job performance. They collected behavioral and job-performance data from 54 employees of a U.S. health-care firm, and found a strong correlation between bullying, positive job evaluations and social and political skill in the workplace.
Of course workplace bullying is a little bit different than bullying from your playground/quad days. For the purposes of this study, it was defined as "systematic aggression and violence targeted towards one or more individuals by one individual or by a group," and the tipster who sent us the link to the article wrote, "This gave me a great flashback to a few gems I met over the course of my public accounting career." Sound familiar?
 
Bullying happens all the time in public accounting, of course (yes, even the violence occasionally!) and it happens at all levels. Yes, even partnersPeople use their rank, relationships, and even deranged, Tourette-esque outburts to intimidate you. It can be in your face, behind your back, subtle, or explicit. In fact, if you've never been on the receiving end of intimidating tactics, then you haven't been working in public accounting very long.
 
Probably the most irritating thing, according to this study, is that these people get ahead. We've all seen it. People hog all the glory when something goes well at your expense and REFUSE to take any responsibility whatsoever when things go wrong but are quick to point the finger at you and it's what give bullies the edge in performance evals. That and turning on a little charm when needed: 
 

The researchers found that many bullies thrive by charming their supervisors and manipulating others to help them get ahead, even while they abuse their co-workers. Because many bullies can “possess high levels of social ability,” they are “able to strategically abuse co-workers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor,” the authors write.

And when you work in a professional services environment, the vast majority of your superiors are far less interested in someone's hurt feelings than whether or not a project is finished on time. Explaining to your performance coach that you dropped the ball because, "So-and-so, CPA is a lunatic that yells at me when the littlest thing goes wrong" is seen by a lot of people as tattling or being thin-skinned.

"Sorry, that happend to you, but the bottom line is the work didn't get done," might be something you'll hear. 

The worst part is that the answer to "What to do about a workplace bully?" isn't an clear one most of the time. Giving him or her a taste of their own medicine isn't as simple as it was on the playground. As the article notes, bullies are politically savvy and are probably a step or two in front of you most of the time. This means outfoxing your nemesis in one way or another. That may require using the strategic relationships you do have, or forging new ones — enemy mine — to get them to back off. Other times, yes, sternly telling this person, "YOU WILL SPEAK TO ME IN A PROFESSIONAL MANNER OR WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A PROBLEM," may do the trick, but it depends on the situation.

In a perfect world, your performance would speak for itself, but it has been shown time and again that's rarely the case, especially in a complex environment like a Big 4 firm. You will run into bullies wherever you work and dealing with them isn't as always easy and you should be prepared for them to look like stars in the eyes of people who "matter."

Anyone got stories of bullying at their firm? How did you deal with it? Discuss below. 

How Workplace Bullies Get Ahead [WSJ]