Businesses thrive on talented and high performing teams. The right employees add immeasurable value to your company and to your experience as a leader. But inevitably, once in a while, you'll get a bad apple that brings morale down: a workplace bully.

Dealing with bullies is not the first thing most entrepreneurs have on their minds when picking up the skills they need to excel in business. But bullying damages businesses and it damages people.

Around 40% of bullying victims suffer adverse health conditions as a result, ranging from depression and anxiety to a number of physical illnesses (including fibromyalgia and cardiovascular issues). Two-thirds of victims lose their job or role to escape bullying.

One in five Americans is a victim. So you can imagine the effect this is having not just on the individual contributors but on businesses as well.

If you've not had to deal with bullying since school, you need to get to know the topic better: figure out what causes bullying, and what the effects are on the victim. This will make it much easier to resolve a bullying problem in your workplace.

Your guide to workplace bullying

With these thoughts in mind, HR specialists have published a new guide to workplace bullying. The resource offers advice to victims and witnesses of bullying, and to managers who have this toxic issue in their workplace. There's even a section to work through and make sure that your own behavior doesn't qualify as bullying.

First, it's worth identifying some of the forms that workplace bullying can take:

  1. Verbal abuse. This may include taunts, jokes, and/or gossip.
  2. Threatening behavior. It may be physical or emotional.
  3. Actual physical assaults. From punching, pushing, slapping, or inappropriate touching to invisible attacks like a foot deliberately poking out of a table to trip the victim.
  4. Professional slights. Wrongfully stealing credit for work or blaming the victim for mistakes can be part of a bully's power game.
  5. Abuse of authority. A bully in authority may make unreasonable work demands of their target, pushing them to breaking point. Or they may stand in the way of promotions and other rewards for work done well.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to identify and deal with bullying swiftly, sensitively, and effectively. Before you do anything else today, establish a bullying and harassment policy for your company (there's a good template here). It also reassures victims that they can come to you, instead of bottling it up as one in three victims does.

Then, when you discover a case of bullying in the office:

Begin with a formal meeting.

Do so swiftly and professionally, because studies have shown that a slack atmosphere fosters bullying. Make sure everything is recorded, because this kind of dispute can soon get weird.

Be there for the target.

Reassure them that you take bullying seriously and have assumed full responsibility for it happening on your watch.

Clarify and enforce the rules and consequences of bullying.

Distribute your guidelines and outline the disciplinary measures in place. Knowing that you are aware of the issue and that there are clear processes and ramifications dissuade potential bullies from stepping over the line. It also reassures victims that they can come to you, instead of bottling it up as one in three victims does.

Nobody likes dealing with bullies, and the issue can be emotionally and professionally complex. But a clear stance from business leaders can help stamp it out before it occurs. Consider it risk management to protect and maintain the welfare of your company.