How to Manage an Office Bully
Although bullying in schools has received glaring media coverage with laws enacted to address the problem, workplace bullying has not received as much attention or legal redress. Until, that is, the New York Times and other media outlets reported that California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had settled a lawsuit for "around $200,000" with an employee who alleged that Whitman had shoved her.
(“Yes, we had an unfortunate incident, but we resolved it in a way that speaks well for her and for eBay,” the employee told the Times.)
The revelation raised the issue of workplace bullying on the national stage, perhaps for the very first time. The reasons behind office bullying are varied, experts say. Many people tend to look at bullying as a "playground problem" - bad behavior, but not harmful. And in most cases, bullying is not illegal, which leaves managers with little recourse. But it is real, experts insist, and deserves serious attention.
Bullying is repeated mistreatment - verbal abuse; threatening, humiliating or intimidating behavior or conduct; or sabotage - that prevents work from getting done and jeopardizes the target's health, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington. It can be a form of racial or gender discrimination although not necessarily. The bully may be a supervisor, peer colleague or lower-level staffer.
According to a Workplace Bullying Institute study, 72 percent of bullies are bosses and 49 percent of employees report being affected by bullying at work. This guide will help you to rein in an office bully to boost morale and avoid getting caught in a bully's bull's eye.
How to Manage an Office Bully: Are You a Bully?
Denise Dawson, who runs the ReallyBadBoss.com blog, describes her first boss as "the worst bully," a cursing and screaming type who preferred to rule by fear. "We felt like prisoners more than employees," she says. "Morale was awful. Attrition was atrocious."
She worked at a small, family-owned company that made bikini wax products. The lowest point came when he asked another employee to model a bikini to give him a better idea of how they could improve their products. "And she wore it," Dawson says. "None of us said anything. We were all scared of losing our jobs."
What Dawson witnessed may be extreme, but the fear she described is not unique. Do your employees complain of random sabotage, harassment, humiliation or isolation? There's a good chance they are being bullied.
OfficeArrow, an online community for office managers and small business owners, created a quiz to see if you are a bully. For those who fear they are in a bully's bull's eye, the Workplace Bullying Institute has a checklist of early bullying signs that includes an unreasonably demanding boss, "surprise" meetings designed to humiliate, retaliatory behavior, unfounded accusations of harassment, and extreme work-related stress that interferes with your health and personal life.
"Male and female bullies tend to use the same tactics of verbal abuse and sabotage, but women will isolate another woman from the group, and deny them social contact and validation," says Gary Namie, the institute's co-founder and director. "These kinds of workers ruin jobs, careers, health, and relationships."
First, employers should try to understand why bullying happens.
"A person becomes a 'target' of a workplace bully because they brought something positive to the workplace that another person feels threatened by," such as skills and education, recognition from a supervisor, or positive interactions with colleagues," says Mike Schlict, a coordinator of New York Healthy Workplace Advocates, a grassroots group that supports pending anti-bullying legislation in New York. "In any case, you were 'targeted' because you are the biggest threat to the bully and they will do whatever they can to make your working environment a living hell."
Second, employers should look for patterns of bullying.
Vicki Lynn, vice president of research and consulting for the career management website Vault.com, recalls an incident where a new department manager at a client company was essentially driven out by jealous staffers. "Several of his staff from the get-go were uncooperative - throwing him under the bus at every opportunity, leaving early, wearing jeans to work, doing end-runs to his manager," Lynn said. "His second-in-command employees were threatened by him, his style, pedigree and technical expertise. He lasted one year. The previous manager of this unit was driven out as well."
Managing an Office Bully: Moving to Protect Your Staff
Bullies operate in a culture of silence and fear. They count on targets remaining tight-lipped about the abusive behavior and quick to flee. In a bad economic climate, people may put up with bullies because they don't have much choice. The option to strike out on one's own, change companies or go into business with a friend or colleague may not exist.
Bullying targets may be unaware of avenues that can help them work through the situation, such as assertiveness training seminars, related books and human resources.
Bosses can cultivate an anti-bullying climate by encouraging open communication and developing good management skills, says Florida psychotherapist, writer and radio host Linnda Durré.
"Resolve any personality conflicts as quickly as possible. These things tend to mushroom and everything can break loose into a nasty encounter," Durré said. "A good manager takes every complaint seriously. Create a paper trail. You really have to cover yourself and document that as a manager, you did everything you could to resolve the situation. Be very clear about the ramifications."
A lot of bullying behavior could be halted with "proactive management," she added. "Give compliments, awards," Durré said. "People need to be acknowledged, thanked and appreciated."
Recruiting and interviewing processes might need to be re-examined, Dawson said.
"Recognize the traits of people who tend to want to dominate things, who don't get along with others," she said. "Someone might look good on paper but how do they interact with people in the office? People who don't speak or make eye contact - those are good indicators of people who don't want to be around other people. It's all about hiring the right people, and instituting and enforcing policies."
For employees, confronting the bully is a necessary first step, says Vicky Oliver, author of Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots and the forthcoming 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. She suggests making a private appointment with the bully to discuss the situation. Remain composed and give examples.
"Many times if ridicule is involved, the bully will try to claim it was all in good faith - he was just joshing. Nevertheless, you should politely persist," Oliver says. "The reason this can work is because you are showing a little flint yourself. You are not going to cower in fear."
As a manager the hope is always that two employees can work it out, but if you notice bullying by an employee, you can intervene. Confronting the bully is an obvious first step. You can also approach the employee you feel is getting bullied to discuss the situation and see if they would like for you to act as a mediator.
Experts also advise documenting each episode and conversation, and you should avoid reacting to the bully if at all possible. If you notice bullying is affecting the health of one of your employees, suggest that they see a physician. You can also suggest a worker seeks out support groups, therapy, and, if needed, medication to deal with any anxiety or depression. But you should encourage an employee who is being bullied to talk to the bully first before escalating the issue.
Dig Deeper: Do You Have a Workplace Anti-Harassment Policy?
Managing an Office Bully: The Role for Human Resources
Though employees and managers may not want to admit they have lost control of a bully, it may be necessary to call in the human resources department to help defuse a situation. For the target of bullying, going to HR (either alone or in a group) can be empowering, Lynn says. Of course, in a small company where the owner serves as the de facto head of human resources, this option may be easier said than done.
If an employee comes to you with a complaint, you should ask them to do a little self-reflection: Is the problem bigger than the bully? Does the employee feel the overall workplace is hostile, or is it just one individual? Could the problem be solved by reassigning the employee to a different role or manager?
"If there is another role in the company that you are seeking, spell that out," says Lynn. "Help them to see positive outcomes because you don't want to lose talent."
That said, be careful with whom you share news of a bullying incident with. You want to avoid escalating the issue because you don't want either employee to be labeled as a "complainer" or worse by his or her peers.
Dig Deeper: Check Out This Downloadable Employee Disciplinary Action Form and Checklist
Managing an Office Bully: Legal Guidelines
Until now, there has been very little legal guidance governing workplace bullies, but that is likely to change in the next few years. In New York state, for example, lawmakers are attempting to give employees some recourse through an anti-bullying bill, which passed the state Senate in May. The pending legislation would help to address the most outrageous and egregious forms of prolonged bullying, Schlict said. "Bullies will now have (to) control their own behavior or find themselves facing the possibility of a civil right of action."
A similar bill is working its way through the Illinois legislature as well. Approximately 17 states have introduced healthy workplace bills since 2003 though none have passed.
Managing an Office Bully: Additional Resources
- Workplace Bullying Institute - The group's site offers information, research, and legislative advocacy.
- Healthy Workplace Bill - A WBI-affiliated site that tracks anti-bullying legislative efforts nationwide
- No Workplace Bullies - This site is affiliated with Civility Partners, a San Diego-based consulting firm specializing in healthy and positive workplaces.
- How to Stop Bullying in the Workplace: A Guide for Managers
- Safety & Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) Program, Washington State Department of Labor & Industries: Workplace bullying guide