• Career Center

    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]

    • $56523509

      In my public accounting experience, most bullies (and the only ones who could really do any damage) were senior managers. Senior managers fit into one of three categories: (1) partner track, (2) think they’re on the partner track but really aren’t (not by their choice) and (3) fucking clueless about what they want to do when they grow up and just kept moving up the ladder because they stuck it out at the firm.

      (1) You’d think these people are dangerous because they don’t want any fuck ups to hurt their chances of being admitted into the partnership. But in reality, the senior managers who are really on the partner track are very competent and hard working, and they don’t allow many fuck ups to happen. You’d still be wise to watch your back though.

      (2) These are the truly dangerous senior managers you need to be on guard with. Part of the reason they won’t become a partner is because they suck shit at their job. And when someone sucks at their job, there tends to be a lot of fuck ups. And these guys sure as hell aren’t going to take the blame for any fuck ups. Beware.

      (3) These senior managers are also dangerous because they’re depressed, passive aggressive and generally hate their lives. There’s nothing more miserable than approaching middle age and not having any inspiration or a personal life. But in their tortured minds, it would be even worse to get “counseled out” from the firm. So these people slack off and dump shit on the people below them, but also aggressively protect themselves from any shit coming their way. They have no real future at the firm, but they won’t think twice about throwing a staff under the bus to cover their own ass.

      • Name

        Agree, good list. I’ve seen several instances of seniors ganging up on young managers as well…that upward feedback survey is a powerful tool in the wrong hands.

      • Guest of wind

        Damn dude, did a senior manager abuse you as a child or something?

        I think I’ve finally figured you out. You were passed over for promotion to senior manager at PwC and let go during the Great Recession, and you are so damn bitter about it, that you attack at every opportunity. Let it go dude.

        • $56523509

          Amazing how you could be so completely wrong about me on literally every single point of your comment. There’s an old saying: It’s better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you’re an idiot than open your mouth and prove them right.

          You’re like a Republican congressman trying to explain how the female reproductive system works.

          • anon

            “If it’s a legitimate bullying, the firm has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

            • Caleb Newquist

              I would hug you if I could.

            • Manwich

              Yes, it was a good comment without the stupid fucking republican line.

            • Robert Palmer


          • Guest of Wind

            Ironic that you mention that old saying….It typically comes to mind when I see you post.

            I think I am right. I know you didn’t get promoted on time to manager (you mentioned it before), and the timing of your departure from PwC is around the time all the firms where laying people off.

            Maybe I was wrong about it being passed over for promotion to senior manger since you weren’t there long enough

      • Rtruth12

        So true it’s ridiculous!

      • Gust

        B4V’s personal circumstances have nothing to do with the validity of the comment, which I think is right. I can remember a jackass manager or two making my life miserable (they didn’t last), and unless you really draw the short straw a partner is going to be too busy or just generally not care enough to mess with you. Watch out for the rare senior manager lifers, probably his type 3, as they are miserable shits.

    • PwCASSociate

      I met some people who wanted to be bullies. Squashed them. Guess I was the bigger bully in the end.

      • dung

        how the heck did you do that?

        • PwCASSociate

          Let them make themselves look like idiots and bury them the minute they do. Offhand coments from a well-liked person with a lot of goodwill can do a significant amount of damage when uttered to the correct individual.

    • Dealing with a bully requires a little bit of courage, patience, self restraint, and good timing. First thing to remember is that a bully’s advantage is typically reliant upon some sort of deception. That means they have an inherent weakness because most of their activities are designed to hide their deception in plain sight through manipulation of superiors and intimidation of subordinates. The trick is to identify that weakness and devise a long-term strategy to develop suitable political alliances to provide a strong foundation from which to strike. Then be patient, and when that weakness gets exposed in the slightest GO ABSOLUTELY ALL IN. What I mean by that is that you have to be willing to take it to a level where you’ve somehow threatened the very survival of the carefully crafted deception. To do that you typically have to be willing to risk your own foundation – hence the necessity of solid political alliances. What I’ve found from experience is that once you’ve demonstrated your willing to go all-in and you’ve some friends to back you up, the bully is neutralized. If you have continued problems from there – call HR!

      • guest

        i like the approach and i was actually in a nice position to play a very damaging card to one particular bully but didnt. I either didnt have the balls or thought it was beneath me. I still hold that card, tucked away on a neat little thumb drive and even though I am gone from the firm I may play it sometime in the near future. You’ll be able to hear the moaning from her perfect little suburban home when that lands on someones desk

        • Your mom

          Now I’m curious. Any chance for benign information about what could be on that thumb drive? An email?

    • hahaha

      Guess what everyone screws up sometimes and if someone gets on your cases about your screw-ups maybe they are not the one with the problem. Maybe you need to listen to them and make corrections. Most people who are saying they are being bullied just cant take constructive criticism because they think they are perfect.

    • philsbluehat

      Stories? I could write a book!

    • Anon

      If you think back to your schoolyard bullies, they were very good at evaluating who was around before bullying someone. If teachers or other adults were around, they’d behave. But as soon as no one was around to tell them to behave, they’d be their evil asshat selves. If there was an adult there to keep an eye on them, they’d put on their angel act. You remember them as assholes, by many bullies tended to be pretty good at bullshitting authority figures.

      Bullies retain this skill in their professional lives. A former partner would curse like a sailor at the team (18 f-bombs in a 12-minute staff meeting, for instance), but if a client or another partner was around, he’d be as smooth as silk, even if it was 30 seconds later. When he got a new female boss and she came to town to visit the team, he was pretty panicked at the idea of one of us following her to the bathroom to chat. (Unfortunately, this never happened.) That entire day, he stuck to her like glue so he could monitor all conversations. I don’t think he left her alone to check her email.

      He’d also take the male team members to strip clubs; commented to the male inters that he wished the women on the team were more inclined to short skirts; had someone monitor how much PTO the pregnant African American senior took (even though she had PTO to take). Let’s just say that my multiple exit interviews were interesting, but nothing came of it.

      • Adam Hill

        Because you didn’t matter in the grand scheme. One exit meeting too many after the first

    • Name2

      I use my audit skills and document and make back-up copies of what I think would make any government agency, divorce lawyer, or any lawyer, laugh all the way to the bank. It’s all about professional duty of care!

    • Anony

      I have found that they especially don’t care about bullying even physical hitting as they only want the audit completed at all costs.

    • 10 euro/hr

      I totes got bullied by Adrienne when she posted a video of me.

    • Dean

      A lot of the characteristics describing bullies are synonymous with sociopaths. Why they chose public accounting and not investment banking or politics is the real question.

    • Guest

      Who is the dude it the picture with the suits behind him?

    • bob uncle

      During my two year stint, I also encountered a bully. He was an absolute poor example of the evolved man. I strongly suspect he descended from a type of rat. His stature (figuratively and literally) was lacking, the amount he was overweight was embarrassing (despite his feigned attempt to eat well), and the very shape of his head resembled that of a mouse (oblong, similar to an American football). I should also mention that he also possessed a pointed nose and large ears.

      To be fair, perhaps he did not descend from a rat. Judging from his rotund wife, he appears to have a Miss. Piggy fetish. While I am not a biologist, I can imagine the likes of Dawkins (speaking in the Queen’s English) arguing that the internal pig genes of my late boss were attracted to like; and therefore compelled my pathetic old boss to seek out squalor in a mating partner. Unfortunately, the pig theory is unfounded and unscientific; pigs are much too smart.

      Before I left the big four, I exposed my previously manager for his true nature to HR and to certain key partners. Putting genetics completely to the side, I described, in no uncertain terms, how my old manager abused his authority. For example, I described how my old manager hijacked my personally assigned computer (without my permission) and emailed another associate a “funny” email. What were the contents of the email? The urgent email that he so needed to send against company policy regarded sailing, wine and cheese. Yes you read correctly. The rat theory, although equally unscientific as the pig theory, appears to have some credibility. The behavior of my old manager can only be described as WEIRD behavior.

      Why bother with the time and energy necessary in order to improve a situation, when I can simply leave to a better situation? My departure was absolutely blissful, and I recommend others follow in my footsteps. In case you are wondering the moral of the story…

      My old manager still works at the same big four.

      • babooey

        Don’t quit your day job.

      • Adam Hill

        Jesus, why did I even scroll down to this one?

      • Sloth

        Absolutely fascinating.