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HUMAN RESOURCES

13 Signs You're a Workplace Bully

The recent bullying case involving two Miami Dolphins football players makes it a good time to revisit bullying--or the potential for it--in your workplace.
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The bullying case between two Miami Dolphins is touching a collective nerve, evoking all of the questions that arise when it comes to rituals--and respect--in the workplace. When does the treatment--or criticism--of employees cross the line into hazing or abuse? When is the potentially mistreated employee a whistleblower, and when is he someone who simply needs to grow thicker skin, or "get with the program"? 

We're not here to speculate on the answers to any of these questions when it comes to the Dolphins or the National Football League. But when it comes to more conventional workplaces--you know, offices, as opposed to football fields--there are a few tips we can provide. 

Warning Signs You're a Bully

How can you tell if you're an executive bully? Here are three warning signs, courtesy of Susan Annunzio, CEO of the Chicago-based Center for High Performance: 

  • There is little disagreement or debate within your leadership team.
  • Your direct reports rarely tell you bad news.
  • You fall in love with an idea, position or deal.

What's great about her list--there are 10 warning signs in all--is its subtlety. It doesn't ask if you yell or scream, punish or pressure. It puts forth statements such as, "Your direct reports rarely tell you bad news," and asks you to evaluate them with an open mind about whether you're potentially intimidating your colleagues and subordinates. 

And what if, heaven forfend, you are--kind of, sort of--a workplace bully? Here are two steps you can take:

Create a charter: The top leaders at NetApp put together a code of conduct based on what NetApp’s Dan Warmenhoven calls “the five Cs”: candor, collaboration, commitment, communication and community. Similarly, the leadership team at Unite Group PLC, an FTSE 200 company, created a written charter that lays out the values, behaviors and expectations for individual members and the team as a whole.

According to Unite CEO Mark Allan, “When you go through that exercise, it gives a shared reference point to hold colleagues to account. We believe that the way the leadership team behaves is the way the rest of the organization will behave.”

Take a look in the mirror: Try to see yourself as others see you, and then ask, “Is that the way I want to be perceived?” It can be helpful to make video recordings of yourself during meetings and watch them with an outside observer who has no stake in the game--perhaps an executive coach. Are you willing to accept harsh realities and confront the problems direct reports bring to your attention? Did you respect the ideas of others? Did you encourage thoughtful debate, or did you squelch it?

And here are four more preventive steps you can take to help bully-proof your workplace, courtesy of Annunzio and others. 

One more thing to keep in mind is whether any of the bullying or bullying-esque activity in your workplace is breaking the law. How can you tell? Donna Ballman, on AOL Jobs, suggests two ways this might be happening: 

1. Targeting the weak. If a bully targets certain protected categories (the pregnant, the disabled, the elderly), it can cross the line into discrimination. 

2. Targeting the different. Bullies can hate people who are different from them. And sometimes targeting the different--based on ethnicity, sex, religion--can also veer into discrimination. 

Ballman offers this wise reminder: If you're in doubt, consult an employment lawyer.

Last updated: Nov 9, 2013




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