Dealing with bullies in the workplace

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Special to The Washington Post
Posted6/3/2012 7:30 AM

An estimated 14 million Americans are being bullied at work, according to Gary and Ruth Namie's 2011 book on workplace bullying, with women targeted more often. In firms around the world, bullying is recognized as a significant health and safety issue and one of the most common causes of workplace related stress, psychological injury, or even suicide. It is particularly problematic during tough economic times when abused employees feel they don't have the option to leave their firms.

There are varying definitions of bullying. In a 2005 article on "Workplace Bullying and Harassment," by Hadyn Olsen, it is defined as "unwanted and unwarranted behavior that a person finds offensive, intimidating or humiliating and is repeated so that it has a detrimental effect upon a person's dignity, safety and well-being."


While bullying might constitute harassing behaviors, it may not be based on a person's gender or race, but rather on the bully's abuse of power.

As Olsen noted, some people are situational bullies and engage in shouting, verbal abuse, intimidation, tantrums, vicious gossip, sabotage and aggression. Others are chronic bullies who are always picking on someone because of their own dysfunctions -- maybe they are deceitful and manipulative, lack empathy or are addicted to power.

Bullying is often hidden within company cultures, and sometimes even protected by employers and employees. Some people, especially those in leadership positions, may turn a blind eye and label it as simply a personality clash among employees. Some call this a culture of collusion, in which people generally accept the behavior and say things like, "That's how this place is, everyone experiences it," or "You have to be thick-skinned to work here."

I have known some leaders who have told employees to just "tough it out." This is not helpful and enables bullies to continue, while painting those who complain as weak and whiny.

Such attitudes can also create an atmosphere of fear that intimidates people from speaking up.

What can be done: The role of the leader

A firm's leader must take a strong stance against bullying. First, he or she must act as a good role model. Second, a leader cannot ignore offenses -- otherwise it appears the behavior is condoned.

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Dealing with the issue is important because employees, who don't have the power or personality to push back, may end up leaving the firm. More importantly, the harmful behavior is unnecessary, unwarranted and unreasonable and just needs to be stopped. Period.

A leader must be connected enough to his/her staff to gauge morale and behaviors. Unfortunately, some can be detached and not have good insights about what employees are experiencing. Because many bullies don't act up in front of their bosses, it is important for leaders to collect feedback from colleagues or subordinates to identify inappropriate behaviors.

Then there are other leaders who know what is going on, but ignore it -- thinking it will go away. They wait until the bullying results in a crisis before they take action. Or they ignore it because the bully has power in the firm or delivers results. It takes a confident strong leader to be able to make sure his/her staff is not being bullied by anyone, and then to take action if they see that behavior occur.

Leaders must confront the bully, indicating what specifically they saw (e.g., "you called that person worthless and stupid") rather than making vague statements (e.g., "you're not nice to others"). Make sure the bully understands the bullying behaviors must stop. Further, decide what other actions to take (along with HR) such as documenting the behaviors or encouraging the bully to get counseling.


What can be done: Organizational policies and practices

As they do to thwart harassment, organizations should create a culture of respect and have anti-bullying policies in place. Firms should have a zero-tolerance policy, and outlaw tantrums, screaming, intimidation, threats and any repetitive behavior that undermines colleagues.

Further, there should be processes in place so that employees can bring up concerns and complaints. When issues are raised, senior leaders must be sure to hear all the evidence and treat it confidentially while collecting the data. I have heard many stories of leaders who have inappropriately broken confidences which led to more bullying. It might be valuable to rely on an HR professional, mediator or another trained person to listen to the complaints.

People come to a workplace to work, not to be exposed to harassing or bullying behaviors.

Bullying can have dire consequences for the health of employees and the firm. It is the leader's responsibility to create a workplace that is not only free from harmful behaviors, but one that encourages respect among all employees, regardless of personality, performance, status or power.

• Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

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