When my daughter was in first grade, she came home complaining about a girl who bullied her. I went to the teacher and explained and asked that she keep an eye on the situation. A few days later, the teacher reported that my daughter was mistaken--there was no bad behavior

Upon further questioning, the teacher admitted that she stood in the center of the playground during recess so she could keep an eye on everything. But there had been no pushing or shoving, therefore, no bullying! I couldn't believe I needed to explain to a teacher that mean girls use words to torment others, not pushing and shoving. 

Even by the ripe old age of 7, this particular mean girl had learned how to behave around the "boss." Imagine how much more time the 35-year-old in your office has had to perfect her (or his) bullying craft! It's no wonder that bullying often goes unnoticed and uncorrected. Managers, like teachers, are busy putting out the fires they can easily see, and the subtle torment goes by unobserved. And sometimes managers are the bullies.

  1. Physical bullying. This includes threats, intimidation, and harassment. Someone who keeps stepping forward to push you into a corner physically or touches you inappropriately is a physical bully even if you're not "hurt."
  2. Tangible/material bullying. When the bully uses power or position (I'm your boss) to control the victim, this is tangible/material bullying.
  3. Verbal bullying. This can be anything from "teasing" to threats to gossip to sexist language. These bullies use their words to torment, even when they may not have any actual power over the victim.
  4. Passive-aggressive or covert bullying. Ni says this is infrequent but "in some ways it's the most insidious." He describes it as including "negative gossip, negative joking at someone's expense, sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expression, or gestures, mimicking to ridicule, deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity, the invisible treatment, social exclusion, professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone's well-being, happiness, and success.
  5. Cyber bullying. This can, of course, include any type of bullying, just delivered electronically.

So, how do you stop this in your office? The steps are easy to pay homage to, but much more difficult to actually carry out.

Know your staff

Granted, if the CEO or HR manager of a 300-person company can't know everyone well, there's no way one person can do this for a company with 1,000 or 10,000 people. But you know your direct reports and people in your area of responsibility. You may have seen Glennon Doyle's account of her son's teacher. She writes that the teacher asks the students to submit a list of classmates they want to sit by each Friday. She then looks for patterns:

Who is not getting requested by anyone else?

Who doesn't even know whom to request?

Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?

Who had a million friends last week and none this week?

You see, Chase's teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or "exceptional citizens." Chase's teacher is looking for lonely children. She's looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She's identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class's social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she's pinning down--right away--who's being bullied and who is doing the bullying.

While this is a bit silly in the adult world, the concept is the same. What group goes to lunch together? Who sits alone? Who is copied on negative emails? Who avoids whom?

Knowing what the social dynamic is can help you stop bullying before it takes hold.

Speak up

If you notice bad behavior, do something about it. If an employee comes to you to complain about a co-worker, listen. Bullying that isn't based on protected class (race, gender, religion, etc.) isn't illegal, but it's just as damaging. 

Don't let bad behavior go unchecked because you're busy. How much busier will you be when your best performers leave because your office bully was intimidated by their performance?

Make behavior expectations clear

If someone is bullying someone in your office--in whatever form--this is something for an official performance improvement plan. Yes, if the person doesn't meet the terms of the PIP, you let him or her go at the end of the 90 days, even an outstanding performer.

Yes, lots of businesses let the stars do whatever they want, but it's not worth it. Bullies are often stealing praise that should belong to others and taking credit that they haven't earned. They drive good performers out. So, fix or fire. No exceptions.

Set an example

Do you play favorites? Intimidate and threaten? Do you talk about one of your employees' faults with a different employee? Do you betray confidences? Then you're part of the problem.

Leadership comes from the top down. If the boss can't be nice, no one else will be. If you reward bullying behavior, people will bully. If you put a stop to it, treat people fairly, and call out bullies, you'll reduce the drama.

Bullying doesn't have to invade your office if you don't want it to. You can put a stop to it.