Put Bullies in Your Rearview Mirror

Is a bully out to crush your confidence or damage your business? Here are ways to ward off people who wreak havoc and create divisiveness.

March 30, 2018

A few years ago, a young woman began working as an office assistant at Sandra Miller’s real estate firm. The assistant’s appearance didn’t sit well with an older, established agent in the office, a woman whom Miller says “was beautiful, but clearly not very nice.” One day, the agent objected to the young woman’s outfit and blurted out at the start of a sales meeting—with the entire 15-person office in attendance—“something about the girl being dressed like a hooker,” recalls Miller, CIPS, CRS, principal broker at Engel & Völkers in Santa Monica, Calif. The assistant broke down in tears.

“Everybody’s mouth just dropped, and the office went completely silent. It was just such a ‘Mean Girl’ thing,” Miller says. The offender was “a producing agent” who didn’t understand she’d done anything wrong. “That type of behavior and derogatory comment was clearly meant to belittle the assistant. It’s just a toxic attitude to have in such a small office,” says Miller, who met privately with the agent and encouraged her to find a new broker. The assistant later received her real estate license and stayed on as a new agent.

Miller has seen her share of bullies in her career. Last year, another new agent in her office was hosting her first broker open house. During the tour, an agent with a competing company—who was apparently miffed that she didn’t get the listing—filmed Miller’s agent from behind as she walked down the stairs, and then posted it on Instagram with a caption that read, “I wonder what she had to do to get this listing?” Miller called the agent’s broker and complained. “My agent felt pretty violated, and I don’t blame her at all,” Miller says.

Plenty of issues keep real estate professionals up at night, but few are more troubling than narcissistic colleagues or clients who harass others with hostile or demeaning attitudes, angry tirades, and threatening emails.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as repeated mistreatment of a person by workplace perpetrators—abusive conduct that’s threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; work sabotage; or verbal abuse. In a 2017 WBI survey, 19 percent of adult Americans reported they’ve experienced workplace abuse, and 37 percent (including witnesses) said they’d been affected by it.

A 2018 Workspace Survey by CommercialCafé asked respondents across the U.S. about their ideal office environment, biggest productivity drain, and most annoying personality types. Of the latter, “the office bully” led the pack, followed by “the loud talker.”

“I think some high school bullies grew up and became real estate agents,” says Adam Conrad, CRB, SRS, broker-owner of the 175-agent Perry Wellington Realty in Hollidaysburg, Pa., who also runs a real estate school. Younger agents are particularly susceptible to bullying, he adds. Conrad’s local MLS has an online scheduling system for showings, and it’s not uncommon for seasoned agents to bombard newbies with obtrusive questions.

“It’s like an interrogation, and the bright lights come on. They’ll ask: Who’s your client? Are they preapproved? What do they do for a living? Just all kinds of crazy questions,” Conrad says. Many new agents are taken aback; some have quit. “We’ve had agents who’ve said, ‘I didn’t realize it would be this difficult to just schedule an appointment or to get my contract presented.’ A lot of them are very discouraged by the pushback.”

Conrad hasn’t had many bullying problems with his own agents, but he has fired a few. “My brokerage has a culture of generosity and reciprocity. Either you’re generous and you’re helpful or you can go work somewhere else.”

His Way or the Highway

Some clients can be bullies, too. One broker of record in Hunterdon County, N.J., recalls a seller a few years ago who shouted and swore at her so much that the broker felt physically ill after every phone conversation they had.

“He was very smart and knowledgeable but just had a chip on his shoulder and assumed the buyers were going to jerk him around,” says the broker, who requested anonymity because the situation still distresses her. The seller had problems with everything from pricing to not wanting attorney review. “I had to listen to him vent in the most crazy way—it’s actually making me upset just talking about it.”

Eventually, the broker says she developed high blood pressure in part because of the exchanges. She took a good look at her life and began to exercise more. Fortunately, with better boundaries, she says her blood pressure is now under control.

Tools You Can Use

Melissa Zavala, CRS, broker-owner of Broadpoint Properties in California’s North San Diego County, has spoken about bullying to the Women’s Council of REALTORS®. “Nobody likes to be bullied, but I think in the real estate profession, novices and some women in particular, or people who feel a little more insecure, are more easily bullied,” Zavala says.

Want to keep bullies at bay? Zavala recommends the following:

Research their production. Zavala admits she was insecure when she began doing short sale processing and foreclosures in 2009. She and her team had closed about 700 deals, but one day, an agent got so enraged when she suggested his buyer pay for an appraisal that he launched into a tirade: “‘Who are you? Put your money where your mouth is!’” Zavala quickly got off the phone but was upset all day. She looked up how many transactions he had done and realized her team had closed more in one month than he had all year: “And then I didn’t feel so bad,” she says

Take a breather. Some people have hair-trigger reactions, so unless it’s an ongoing bullying situation, it may pay to wait a day or two before responding. If someone is aggressive on the phone or email, be polite and professional. Tell them you’ll get back to them in a bit. “I generally try to get off the phone if someone starts to yell at me,” Zavala says.

Beware of keyboard commandos. Some folks can be downright nasty behind a keyboard but would never make the same comments face-to-face. If a client or colleague lobs mean text messages but is a pushover in person or on the phone, then schedule a meeting or give the person a call. Zavala recalls a buyer’s agent who had a “screw the contract” attitude in an email exchange, but in person, his aggression was nowhere to be found. The 28-year-old man was friendly—and inexperienced, as he had closed only two deals.

Put it in writing. Office manuals and independent contractor agreements should have “very clear language about expectations for appropriate behavior in the office and appropriate treatment of your colleagues,” Zavala says. If a client or outside agent is the bully, make sure there’s a protocol for agents to let the broker know if an issue needs to be addressed.

Keep moving. It’s easy to get overdramatic or too attached to an issue if you’re not busy. “We keep our office kind of lean and mean,” Zavala says of her 10-person firm. “We decided a few years ago that we were going to cut all of the toxins and look for very busy, productive agents who don’t have time for that kind of behavior. And it has worked out really well for us. If you’re closing 10, 20 or 30 transactions a year, you don’t have time to get involved in everybody else’s bullying and drama.”


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Pamela Babcock is a freelance journalist based in the New York City area. She writes frequently about leadership and workplaces issues for a variety of clients. Connect with Pamela at www.pamelababcock.com.

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