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How to stop workplace bullying and find the cause


Is workplace bullying a problem in your organization?

What image comes to mind when you hear the words “workplace bully?” A ranting lunatic who yells and stomps and is king of the insults? Or is it someone who subtly disregards someone else’s work while smiling in their face?

Turns out, it can be both.

Either way, these are toxic employees who inflict harm on your staff and your company. Bullying itself may be considered workplace violence, due to psychological scars left on its victims. Left unchallenged, bullies may even trigger workplace violence from the person being bullied or escalate their bad behavior into violence themselves.

Here’s how you can spot and stop workplace bullying before you lose valuable team members or productivity suffers.

What workplace bullying looks like

A third of workers say they’ve been bullied at work, according to a CareerBuilder survey. Young workers, women and LGBT employees report the highest rates of bullying. Survey responders said these were the most common ways they were bullied:

  • Falsely accused of making mistakes (45 percent)
  • Comments ignored, dismissed or not acknowledged (42 percent)
  • Criticized constantly by boss or co-workers (37 percent)
  • Different standards or policies applied to them (34 percent)
  • Gossiped about (36 percent)
  • Belittling comments made during meetings (28 percent)
  • Someone didn’t perform certain duties, which negatively impacted their work (29 percent)
  • Yelled at by boss in front of co-workers (26 percent)
  • Excluded from projects or meetings (20 percent)

Bullying can be a legal liability for your business if comments or gossip are about race, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation – since this can be considered harassment.

Many states have enacted workplace anti-bullying legislation, but no federal law directly addresses this issue. However, the line between bullying and harassment can be murky, so managing bullies is not only important for morale in the workplace – it also helps to ensure no legal lines are crossed.

Types of workplace bullies

Bullies are among the worst types of toxic employees, due to the damage they inflict through lost productivity, turnover and low morale. Do you recognize any of these types of behaviors among your staff?

1. The blatant bully

It may be hard to believe, but the screaming insulter is still alive and well in some workplaces. While the archetypical yeller is a boss who manages by fear, the blatant bully can be anyone in the workplace.

You’ll hear these types of bullies make belittling comments or talk over someone in a meeting. They want their way. They want you to know they’re in control. They want you to know how important they are, and it doesn’t matter who they have to step on to get their point across.

2. The passive-aggressive bully

This person will smile and give an off-handed compliment, such as, ”Wow, you’re on time for once. That’s great!”

Passive-aggressive bullies leave you wondering if you were just given praise or taken down a peg. You might find yourself saying: “Um, thanks, I think.”

Or they may tell you one thing, and tell others something completely different.

Often, they’ll act out in small, subtle ways, such as changing a workflow process or a meeting agenda with little warning, to set someone up for failure.

For example, they may say, “I moved our meeting up – I hope you can be ready to give your presentation.”

To your employees, this can feel like sabotage. And these bullies know what they’re doing. Problem is, they’re doing it in a subversive way that takes a while to detect.

3. The overly direct bully

These workers aren’t typical bullies, in that they aren’t intentionally trying to cause problems. Some people simply function in a very direct manner. For those familiar with the DISC personality assessment, the “D” is for “dominance” – people who are results-focused and action-oriented.

These people may be perceived as bullies. But it’s usually not their intention to bulldoze the rest of the group. They may not even know how they come across to others.

Direct people are quick, aggressive and unfiltered, which, over time, can seem like bullying. Sometimes they get away with this behavior because “that’s just how they are.” But they have to be made aware that how they say things can be perceived as harsh and disruptive to team morale.

What the workplace bully gets out of it

 Why do workplace bullies do what they do, and what do they get out of it?

There’s no one simple answer. The reasons behind their behavior could run the gamut. It may result from a need to make themselves feel good, or because they need to feel in control. Their bullying tactics may also stem from a desire to promote their own career.

Weak managers, for example, will sometimes resort to management by fear, which can make them bullies. If their way of trying to motivate employees includes intimidation or scare tactics, employees may feel picked on.

Sometimes, these people aren’t singling out certain individuals; they are “equal opportunity offenders” and no one is safe from their tirades. Other bullies may unconsciously pick on those they perceive to be weak.

Survival tips for dealing with a bully

Dealing with a workplace bully can be a delicate situation. Some employees may take it upon themselves to deal directly with the offender, telling them how their words or actions affect their work.

However, because intimidation may be at the root of the bullying, some employees may not feel they can talk directly to the bully, especially if the person outranks them. That’s why it’s so important for every manager to keep an eye out for such behavior – and address it promptly.

Using the same chain of reporting that is used for a harassment issue may be the best course of action, or follow your company’s processes for complaint-resolution, which typically follow the company’s organizational chart and chain of command.

Employees who feel bullied should always:

  • Stay calm and maintain their professionalism.
  • Avoid reciprocating or confronting the bully.
  • Limit how much they interact with the bully.
  • Document the behavior.

Should the bullying escalate or start to impact an employee’s ability to get their work done, they should consult HR or another resource. If your company provides an EAP program, they may also want to refer to it for tips on dealing with difficult employees.

An employee’s documentation of the bullying, along with date and time (and any other people who may have witnessed the behavior) establishes a pattern of behavior and will lend credence to their allegations.

Documentation can serve three main purposes:

  1. It gives HR and management a sense of the frequency and intensity of the bullying.
  2. It also helps bullied employees reassure themselves that they’re not just being overly sensitive or imagining things (in the case of gaslighting).
  3. Finally, it gives your HR team and managers points of discussion with the bully.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to a manager that the bully is making everyone miserable. The manager should talk separately with the offender and the victims to determine what has transpired.

If it continues to happen, the bully may need to be elevated to a progressive discipline plan – a process that includes verbal and written counseling. This plan can include having the bully attend classes or sessions that address specific behaviors.

Workplace bullying has often been described as a silent crisis, which makes proactively addressing it especially important. That means learning to recognize the signs and empowering your team to do the same. Get more solid advice on how to cultivate an atmosphere of respect that sets everyone up for success by downloading our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.