Bullying is not just for kids

Their Boss yelled across the room to Sylvia, “Where is that report I need?” Sylvia responded, “Which report are you referring to?”  The Boss then said, “You are so stupid.” He turned, went into his office and slammed the door.  A week has gone by and the Boss has not spoken to Sylvia, who supervises the group of employees who witnessed this incident. How can Sylvia respond to this bullying behavior?

Much attention has been focused on the damage done to classmates by school yard bullies. Research tells us that boys are more physical (fighting, taunting). Bullying among girls is more emotional and social (excluding, gossiping, and whispering).  As people age, bullying becomes less physical and more sophisticated – and bullying moves into the workplace.[1]

Bullies at work

Some of the school yard characteristics are more subtle, but contain the same tactics; intimidating behavior by a person (or group) who sees himself/herself as more powerful.  Bullying may take the form of silent treatment, spreading rumors, sarcastic comments, sabotage, and unfair criticism.   Every bully has a victim who is afraid, or embarrassed or angry.

Bullying, in addition to being personally hurtful, moves people away from a focus on work to a focus on how they are being treated and how they feel.  Bullying that is ignored is costly.

Confronting the workplace bully

  • A few people will choose to attack a bully. They fight back with an “eye for an eye” approach. This often escalates the issue and causes more disruption.
  • Most people prefer to avoid a bully, sometimes going to great lengths to avoid working with, or for, bullies.  They withdraw and ultimately they will leave the organization.
  • Silence is permission for the bully to continue the same behavior.

Strategies for coping with bullies

  1. Speak up. Nothing will change unless someone speaks up. Name the behavior. If the behavior is bullying, call it that.
  2. Determine the facts.  Is this a one-time incident of bullying or a pattern of behavior?
  3. Assume the best. The bully may be unaware of how his/her behavior makes others feel. Describe to the bully in a factual manner what you have experienced or observed. It may help to include witnesses in this conversation to re-enforce the point.
  4. Be prepared that bullies may deny any intent to be harmful…”I didn’t say that” or I didn’t mean that”.  Accept that explanation but ask for a change in behavior and describe the impact on you.
  5. Peer-to-peer bullying where power is equal can usually be resolved by encouraging co-workers to acknowledge and settle their issues without the intervention of management.  The pressure of other co-workers can help move toward more collaborative behavior.  It is important to set the example and build a culture where giving and receiving feedback is normal and encouraged.
  6. Many organizations are now adopting policies on bullying or are expanding harassment policies to include language to describe bullying with clear consequences.
  7. Decide the appropriate consequence for the bullying action.  Protect the victims of bullying.  Hold the bully accountable for behavior and enforce consequences.

When the Bully is the Big Boss

Sometimes bullying behavior gets great results. Fear can be a powerful motivator in the short run And, yes, bullies can be in very senior positions.  The higher up in the organization a bully is, the more costly the behavior. Ultimately, people will leave.  The bullying reputation spreads as people talk and it becomes harder to recruit workers.

This bully needs feedback from the highest level in the organization.  The bully has to be convinced

that bullying tactics don’t work. Help bullies understand the consequences of their behavior and the effect their behavior has on others…sometimes on innocent bystanders that they have no intention of affecting.  Make the bully aware of how they are seen by others. Coaching from an external coach may help the bully change behavior and save face within the organization.

Social Media

The internet has given bullies an opportunity to reach a large audience without even mentioning a name, except everyone knows who they are talking about.  When confronted, the bully can say that the message was misunderstood, but the damage has been done.  This action needs to be addressed and a warning issued, not only to the person who sent the message, but to others so it is understood that email cannot be used in this manner.

It’s all About Accountability

Bullying in the workplace can be stopped when people agree to be accountable; personally, accountable for speaking up when they observe bullying behavior.  Peer-to-peer accountability for giving co-workers direct feedback or intervening as a witness. Supervisor/ management accountability for taking direct action and not overlooking bullying behavior and documenting incidents of bullying. Organizationally accountable by having policies in place and widely circulated, that speak to the consequences of bullying and harassing behavior.

Wrongly Accused

There is no worse feeling than being accused of something one did not do. Sometimes to hurt someone or “get even” people may be wrongly accused of bullying. Be careful about acting too quickly. Everyone deserves an unbiased and fair hearing.  Witnesses who are known to be objective can be very helpful in defending the wrongly accused.  The workplace should be informed that the wrongly accused is not at fault and his/her reputation should be cleared.[1] Crucial Conversations: Skills for Confronting the Workplace Bully webinar by David Maxwell