Rutgers: A Metaphor for the Business Bully

Kicking, hitting, pushing, calling names — no, it’s not a 4-year-old kindergartner run amok, it’s the behavior of 44-year-old, (now former) Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice. Apparently Rice has been positively reinforced and rewarded for this type of behavior since preschool because people don’t develop lifestyle strategies overnight. In early April of this year, Rice was fired by the university after (and only after) ESPN aired footage of his form of inspiring performance: nothing like the coach bashing your head with a basketball at close range to make you a better player, right?

We could discuss the sports world and its culture until the coaches come home, but Rice is just an example of someone who continued doing what he was being paid big bucks to do. Yes, you heard me. The university president and director of intercollegiate athletics knew what was going on for a minimum of a year. At one point, they actually ordered Rice to anger management and fined, but not fired him. He continued to berate and abuse his team. Meanwhile, management sat on their hands, because the Rutgers team had entered the prestigious Big Ten Conference under Rice’s reign.

Sadly, this scheme plays out in businesses every day. Mitigation due to litigation may have altered workplace abuse from the days of Ebenezer Scrooge, but fear of losing one’s job or possibility for promotion still stifles worker complaints. (In fact, many of the Rutgers players stated they were fearful of losing their scholarships or team positions if they protested.) Recently Reader’s Digest asked for contributions for a worst boss contest, and it received plenty of anecdotes relating the horrors of dysfunctional management. After all, Dwight Shrute might be laughable as the power-hungry dweeb on “The Office,” but it’s not so funny if you have to kowtow to his real-life counterpart every day.

The word bully is a big part of the media’s jargon lately, but just what is a bully? One definition is a blustering, browbeating person. Just as in the Rutgers situation, many businesses continue to employ their own bullies for many reasons: the bully brings good numbers, bullying is part of the corporate culture or the owner/top dog is the bully! Besides, whistle-blowers are ignored or punished. What can employees do besides quit, surreptitiously use their smartphones (for YouTube) when the bully is having a targeted tantrum, or perhaps put this article on the offender’s desk?

Change really should start at the top, and in some cases the only recourse is leaving, litigation or both, especially when the bully is the chief executive. To avoid such events, organizations should make it clear that intimidating, derogatory and abusive verbal behavior of any kind will result in termination. Then they must follow through with the consequences. Employees should have an outlet, not for bad-mouthing someone who has told them they have to come in on time, but for real reasons stated in behavioral terms: name-calling (profanity, etc.), yelling, screaming, punishing through imbalanced workloads or hours, requirements outside of the job description and so on. Abusive power is the stuff of which unions were born and it is not unusual that some of their leaders today have taken on the bully role with companies and their own members. Bullying in unions and in companies will not survive because it never produces the discretionary effort that is required for the long-term success of any group in the modern world.

If leaders truly want to develop a positive culture, they must stop labeling anyone who complains, welcome input of all kinds without repercussion and investigate and act immediately and appropriately on valid employee concerns.

Management of others is a privilege, not a right, and a privilege not to be abused or rewarded with a growing paycheck as abuse continues. In the case of Rutgers, the administration fired Rice within 24 hours of the airing of his vicious video, and then attempted to dodge its own part in allowing his behaviors. An ESPN article urging the firing of the athletic director and the school’s president stated, “The school knew all about Rice’s wildly inappropriate behavior months ago.” As the renowned Scottish physicist William Thomson stated: “The true measure of a man is what he would do if he knew he would never be caught.”

For tips on how to deal with your own version of a bully boss, read Horrible Boss? Kill them with kindness…