Workplace Bullies – What To Do?

Workplace bullies demonstrate a serious lack of social and emotional intelligence.  They lack the skills of self-management, stress management and empathy.  They do severe damage to the individuals they bully, and to the companies for which they work.

And the problem is widespread.  According to a survey conducted in 2007 by Zogby International, almost half of U.S. workers report they’ve been the subject of workplace bullying or have witnessed it.

That figure may be low.

In a 2008 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Ethics Resource Center of Arlington, Va., 57 percent of the 513 participants confirmed that they had witnessed “abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees,” not including sexual harassment.

Bully behavior can take many forms – belittling people, public humiliation, insults, threats, verbal abuse, sabotage, aggressive behavior, intimidation, screaming, yelling and other forms of rage, ostracism, tantrums, and harsh, unfair, repetitive criticism.

The result on individuals who are the target of the bullying can include stress, anxiety, feelings of powerlessness, depression, PTSD, physical illness (including higher blood pressure, severe headaches, stomachaches), and worse.  In California, a scientist committed suicide after being subjected to what she described as years of mistreatment by an abusive boss.  On July 30, 2010, Kevin Morrisey, the 52-year-old editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, shot himself in the head on the University of Virginia campus.  According to an ABC News report, no fewer than 18 calls were made to university officials reporting that Morrisey was the target of workplace bullying and was seeking protection.

The result on organizations is also devastating:  reduced productivity resulting in possible reduced profitability, increased absenteeism and sick days, increased health insurance claims from stress-related illnesses, and abnormally high turnover.

Bullies also make people run scared.  People go into protective mode, which hardly supports creativity and innovation in the workplace.  Customer service also suffers as employees take out their feelings of frustration on the company by taking it out on the customers.

Bullies are expensive.  The costs can also take the form of lawsuits and legal battles.  In Indiana, a medical technician sued and was awarded $325,000 in damages after his boss shouted threats at him with clenched fists.

Dr. Michael H. Harrison, a psychologist with Harrison Psychological Associates, cites a recent survey of 9,000 federal employees indicating that 42 percent of female and 15 percent of male employees reported being harassed within a two-year period, resulting in a cost of more than $180 million in lost time and productivity to that one organization alone.

“This kind of harassment has a huge impact on a company’s bottom line,” he says.

Seventeen states have now introduced bills that would enable victims of bullying behavior to sue for damages.   New York’s version of the legislation stalled in committee this Fall (2010).

Is workplace bullying so serious that we need to make it a crime?  The Sunday newspaper magazine, Parade, asked that question in a July 18, 2010 article entitled, Workplace Bullying:  Do We Need a Law? The magazine’s online poll results found overwhelming support for a law — 93% yes.  (Please note this is an unscientific poll consisting of self-selected respondents.)

To date, the legislation has not passed in any of the states or at the federal level.  It’s probably just a matter of time.  Scandinavian countries have had explicit anti-bulling laws since 1994.  Many EU nations have protections in place, as does Australia.  The U.K. and Ireland have strong codes in place to address bullying (since 2005).  Canada’s first provincial law was enacted in 2004, and a second in 20907, and one covering federal employees was passed in 2008.

Enacting such legislation is opposed by many in the HR industry.  Legislation could result in a significant increase litigation and lawsuits against employers, and expose them to liability for medical expenses, lost wages, emotional distress, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.  Some believe it would create an incentive for certain individuals to “game the system” as a means to easy monetary gain.

And yet, many people feel employers have had years to comply.  So what are some options short of broad, sweeping legislation?

Organizations can clearly define bullying behavior and write a policy on the consequences of such behavior, and train managers and employees accordingly.

Since 70 percent of bullies are managers and supervisors (they need the positional power to engage in bullying behavior), and since most bullies don’t act up in front of their superiors, organizations must encourage employees to report bullying behavior.  One possibility is adding questions about bullying to existing tools like 360-feedback reviews and workplace culture surveys.  Another would be to have an anonymous tip line or suggestion box.

Executives, managers and HR professionals can also watch for the more subtle signs of bullying, such as a person who always takes credit for things others have no doubt contributed to, people who dominate meetings with interruptions, sarcasm, put-downs and insults.  We can also keep an eye out for people who may be afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.

Organizations can also confront the bully, and the sooner the better.  Too often, managers, executives and HR professionals don’t pay attention to bullying until it becomes a crisis.  Bullies need to be confronted as soon as complaints start coming in (in private of course).  Direct feedback such as, “You called an employee an idiot,” is much more effective than “You’re not being a team player” or “ . . .  not being nice.”  In addition, it needs to be pointed out to the bully that his behavior embarrasses the organization as well as the bully himself, that it’s weak behavior.  Don’t buy into the bully’s defenses, like “that’s just who I am.”

After describing the complaints, it’s important to ask the bully for his / her thoughts.  Listen carefully.  Are they blaming others?  Do they get angry?  Their reaction can tell us a great deal about the individual and whether they can change.

It’s important to have some written policies in place, and enforce clear action.  Will the bully first receive a verbal warning?  Will that be followed by written reprimands?  Are there any penalties that will be exacted (e.g., a demotion, lost pay)?  One key is to focus on the behavior, not on the person.  Rather than tell the bully they must change, it’s better to tell them their behavior must change, and how.  They may counter with a defense regarding why their target deserves mistreatment, but the reality is that no one deserves to be mistreated, and regardless of their reason for doing so, the bullying behavior must stop.

If the individual shows any genuine interest in improving their behavior, and if they are highly valued contributors to the organization, it might be useful to offer them coaching or anger management counseling or training.  This only works, however, if an individual has the desire to change.

An organizational culture that makes civility and respect a high priority can help, as well as an organizational policy that describes the behaviors that are not in alignment with the organizational culture.   Create a culture of respect.  Outlaw yelling and screaming, tantrums, threats, and intimidation, and describe what these behaviors look like.

Top executives and HR professionals alike can “walk the talk” – modeling respectful behavior throughout the organization, no matter the level of employee.

Organizations must confront bullying behavior promptly.  Actions speak louder than the organization’s policy documents.   They can also provide conflict management or “constructive confrontation” training to the bullying managers and employees alike.  They can also make screening for bullies in the hiring process a high priority.

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