Bullies in the Workplace

by Dave Goranson
Goranson Consulting, Inc.

Recently, I was invited to be a guest on a talk radio show to speak to that very topic, "Bullies in the Workplace.” The topic proved so popular that I was invited back again two days later to discuss further and answer some questions coming in from listeners.

Clearly, this topic was resonating with the audience—and not just because of all the stories in the news, both locally and nationally, about kids being bullied and the sometimes dire consequences and outcomes from that. Once I began to share statistics from a couple of recent surveys, along with some real-world examples of that behavior in action in the workplace, people chimed in. Obviously, this is both a common occurrence and a vastly underreported one as well.

But one of the key questions is: WHY? Based on all the attention being given to disengaged workforces today, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, should it? With people being asked to do more and more, spending more time than ever at work and reaching the breaking point on stress, why wouldn’t we expect to see this unfortunate byproduct as a result?

I truly believe that many people don’t even know they are behaving like a “workplace bully,” but they need to become more cognizant of the signs and the damage it can create. And by following some of the wonderful, but sometimes overwhelming, volume of information available on creating a more engaged workforce, I suspect that a lot of the bullying would disappear as well.

In order to raise awareness and help address the problem, I will provide some brief highlights from a 2010 Zogby International poll commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute. I found the results somewhat staggering. Thirty-five percent of the U.S. workforce—about 53.5 million Americans—report being bullied at work, and another 15 percent say they've witnessed bullying in the workplace. Half of all Americans have directly experienced it. Simultaneously, 50 percent report neither experiencing nor witnessing bullying. Hence, we appear to have the potential for a "silent epidemic."

Both men and women bully, but the majority of bullying is same-gender harassment, which is mostly legal, according to anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies.

Often, bullying exists but can be tough to pinpoint. I picked up some great tips on this in an article by Jennifer Alsever entitled "How to Handle a Workplace Bully,” which supports what I have personally experienced in the workplace, both as an advisor and coach and as an employee prior to that. I highly recommend checking it out if you want even more details about this important issue.

Why is bullying so difficult to spot? Bullies aren’t all dummies; they often wait until the boss isn’t around. As a result, if bullying is occurring, you are left to rely on feedback and the documented actions of other staff members. Can you guess what the inherent challenges might be in that scenario? Most people don’t want to put themselves “out there” and be the sole source of information that might lead to disciplinary action, confrontation, hard feelings or even retribution. That’s why the best solution is to recognize up front what is the acceptable and expected behavior in your workplace. And certainly, immediately noting and addressing what is not acceptable is a must.

So what constitutes bullying? Some information from SHARP (Safety & Health Assessment and Research for Prevention), an independent research program based in Olympia, Washington, might help as well. Based on their research and through their work with business and labor, they have targeted some common examples of the bullying problem:

  • Unwarranted or invalid criticism
  • Blame without factual justification
  • Being treated differently than the rest of your group
  • Being sworn at
  • Exclusion or social isolation
  • Being shouted at or being humiliated
  • Being the target of practical jokes
  • Excessive monitoring.

Often, managers may foster an environment of bullying and not even know they are doing it. It’s not uncommon to create competition among individuals or teams in the workplace—but be careful as to the lengths you go with that. Friendly, positive, results-driven competition can occasionally be a welcome and effective way to liven things up. It breaks the monotony, injects some fun and life into the work environment, and at the same time, helps to reach an important goal. But too much, on a constant basis, can begin to make people on your team feel squeezed, pressured and frustrated. Setting demands and goals so high that they are unattainable—and making people feel threatened if they are not attained—is not acceptable. Creating deadlines that nobody could possibly meet won’t help either; it only makes them feel like you are setting them up for failure. As a leader, you should be very clear about what is acceptable behavior in this area—lead by example, in a positive manner!

Obviously, when bullying is prevalent, this affects productivity, morale, team dynamics, employee retention, “presenteeism”…and your business’ bottom line. It has clearly been proven to drive up medical claims, workers’ compensation costs and time away from work as well.

What to do when bullying happens? Address it immediately. Don’t wait until it gets to the crisis stage and you have a raging forest fire. Be direct with the purported bully without making it confrontational. Be very specific about the behavior and extremely clear on expectations going forward. One Minute Manager concepts work really well in this area, based on my experience. Why? It targets the behavior, not the person, and it gives you a path or script to follow in what can be a very difficult setting.

After going through this with them, ask the person accused of bullying for their thoughts, paying particular attention to both verbal and nonverbal feedback. One of the best pieces of advice I have read comes from Holly Latty-Mann, president of The Leadership Trust. Try asking the offender if he or she would want their spouse or child to be treated the same way at work. Excellent advice. I’ve personally tried it and witnessed a complete shift in their entire demeanor.

Bullies today often don’t even know they are acting as one. Give people the benefit of the doubt, but address the potential or real problem right away. Set expectations, and recognize when needed behavior changes result, which offers the chance for some positive reinforcement with the employee. That’s a much better place to be, today more than ever! iBi

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