Don’t be a bully in your work

Apr 19, 2016 · 6 min read

Once complexity is established in a workplace, it leads to a bullying mentality. That may have been the intent all along or it may be a terrible by-product. Whichever the case, it isn’t good work. Here are 3 styles of bullying I see everywhere.

1. Accidental

If you’ve spent a lot of time learning the complexities of a system, you’re likely to become resentful of users who don’t understand them. “Spend some time learning our system!” you may think. But approach it from the user’s perspective. She has other things occupying her time. Recognize your system is complex and don’t antagonize users.

These accidental bullies exist often in proprietary systems for businesses that were likely designed by an engineer with no input from user experience (UX) or user interface (UI) designers. They have been designed to solve an internal business problem without considering external users.

These are systems like the one I use to communicate with my physician’s office — a customized interface to deliver records and emails. It doesn’t work like a normal email system: I can’t attach documents; I can only email a general mailbox. Some functions (like online payments) don’t work at all. Some, like scheduling appointments, require a lot of clicks to operate. It’s user-unfriendly.

One of the benefits of focusing on user experience in your business and product is showing respect for your users. When we leave the system complex, we show our users we don’t respect them. That leads to disengagement.

This is where openness can guide us to a better experience. Open your users’ experience. Merely by showing the opt outs to users, we simplify the experience. The real simplicity, of course, takes place when we take apart those complex systems and rebuild them with simplicity and openness as our focus. But in the meantime, just being open can save you some user engagement.

2. Condescending

When a system is something we are expected to handle as adults — bank accounts, taxes, insurance — the bullying takes the form of condescension towards the users. How many times have you been made to feel dumb by one of the agents of these institutions when you ask basic questions? How many times do you refrain from asking a question because you don’t want to face the condescension?

This seems to be the default attitude of my health insurance company. Their website directs users to call the 800 number for many reasons. Then, the customer service personnel on the phone are condescending and dismissive of users’ questions. Their tone reflects that the user should have known the answer and they are annoyed that they have to do the user’s work.

In many of these cases, the problem stems from a lack of communication within the company. One department sets the rules. One department decides what information the website will display. One department answers the phones. Each relies on the other to get one step further down the line of communication. No one person may understand the entire process. I’ve had — and you probably have too — many conversations with customer service personnel who will eventually confess that they didn’t know their website told me to call them, or didn’t know the information wasn’t in the mailing I received. When this happens, it’s an easy indication that the system is closed on the inside.

Those companies have become bullies (and condescending ones at that) because they’ve never been able to explain their system to themselves. They’ve probably added one department after another as needed and never taken the opportunity to re-think their organization when they grew. They need to open their system up to their employees. Instead of compartmentalizing information inside the company, it needs to be visible to all employees. A simple flow of work and information should be designed and explained to all users, internal and external.

I encounter this system most often in institutions I have no choice but to deal with: banks, government agencies, insurance companies. Because a customer base is assured, these institutions are lazy in their approach to user experience. But I’ve also seen this system happen accidentally in manufacturing when certain departments are privy to information that others are not. Once this imbalance makes its way to the customer, it can cause bullying ripples inside and outside the company. If the sales team has different information on a product than the website team, it may lead one to push around the customer and the other to push around colleagues.

Open means sharing information inside and outside the company. Open also means making sure that the process for delivering it can be tweaked.

3. Purposeful

The worst form of bullying comes from those business who’ve made a system complicated on purpose in order to trap their customers. Bullying is part of their game plan to retain customers. It’s the lousiest business idea there has ever been. To retain a customer, you’ve decided to be aggressive, nasty, threatening, and relentless? Fresh in our minds is the where the “retention agent” bullied a customer for 20 minutes to try to keep him from canceling his service. As my friend, the designer Justin Lascelle, said, the retention agent is “a particularly odious position for any company to dream up, let alone hire.”

Companies that make it difficult to leave prove the rule that openness leads to good work. Comcast (and many others) have forced their employees to do bad work by creating complex systems for customers to come and go and switch plans. They are bullying their employees to bully customers. And their reputation is in the toilet. by Consumerist readers months before that infamous call was leaked.

If they’d only be open about their rates, drop their contracts, and make it easy to leave, they’d improve their business immensely and immediately.

Purposeful bullying from companies doesn’t end at bullying their own employees or users. Those bullying companies generally go after their competitors as well. If the bullying company is large, they usually try to shut down all competition through lobbying for restrictive laws. In other words, they’re adding to the manual of government and complicating things for everyone to try to retain their hold on a market.

If you’re a person or company whose goal is good work then the good news is you can spot exactly who is not doing it by looking for the bullies. If those companies haven’t already shut out competition with their aggressive lobbying, then it’s easy to offer an alternative to them. Just be open and simple. People will flock to you. We’re tired of being bullied.

There are many negative by-products that come from being closed and complex. Bullying is one of those. When something is hard to use, it leads to abuse. That goes for internal systems, customer service, and public relationships. So when you close something off in your business, recognize you’re one step closer to bullying your employees or customers.

Good business does not come from bad services.

Bullying is always a bad service. Once a company has gotten to that level of complexity, it no longer has anything positive to offer. It is a negative drag on society and humanity. If your business is bullying its employees, users, or competitors, stop it or leave the business. There is positive work out there for you to do. You just might have to change your mind to get to it. is a book about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. It is only $5 on , or $10 .

Stories about doing better work by focusing on simplicity…

Stories about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. Stories about the bad work that is complex and closed.


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Stories about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. Stories about the bad work that is complex and closed.