Certainly we have all heard about what a problem bullying is, however, what most may not realize is that bullying is not just limited to the classroom or school yard. Bullying is becoming an increasingly prevalent problem in the business world-and not just on Wall Street, but also on Main Street, and yes, this does include our community. In fact, I was compelled to write about the issue of “Bullying in the Business World” about a year ago, because I had been either witness to, or confidant in, a few bullying cases over several months, and truly felt the need to shed some light on the issue, as it seems to be coming all too common place. In some cases, it has even become an acceptable way of doing business. Recently, it seems to have once again “reared its ugly head”, prompting me to resurrect this column and post it to my blog.
Like most things that get my attention, and yes, even raise my blood pressure, I went right to “Google” to see what I could find on the subject~and not surprisingly, found a wealth of information, including a few websites dedicated solely to workplace bullying as well as a number of studies that have been conducted.
According to Kickbully.com, “roughly one-fourth of employed Americans have reported bullying at work. That’s over 30 million people.” Another leading website dedicated to work place bullying cites that “according to the Workplace Bullying Institute's national scientific surveys (in 2007 and 2010), 35% of adult Americans (an estimated 54 million workers) report being bullied at work; an additional 15% witness it and vicariously are made miserable.” While the numbers are a bit different between the two sources, it is still an awful lot of people being victimized by something that we surely thought we had left behind at high school graduation.
One of the pieces of information that I found most alarming is that bullies tend to target the most skilled workers, and therefore can easily cripple your organization by driving away your most qualified employees. This can actually hamper the growth of your business, while creating a whole host of other issues such as high turnover and absenteeism rates. Workplacebullying.com states that “Employers are often reluctant to confront hyper-aggressive employees. They fear lawsuits and difficulty replacing the jerks considered "indispensable." The truth is that it is costlier to fail to act than it is to pursue solutions. Bullies are undermining legitimate business processes and harming people in secret. It's time to examine the real costs of unwanted turnover, absenteeism, lawsuit or complaint settlements, workers comp and disability claims. The bully is expensive. Current losses warrant greater weight than imagined future worst-case scenarios.”
Additionally, if your workplace bully is taking that behavior outside of your organization, and subjecting their behavior onto other business people and/or clients, it can certainly damage your reputation as a business. One of the most common forms of this type of bullying is “If you do this (or don’t do this, or continue to do this) I will no longer patronize your organization, I will also be sure to tell about this and do my best to be sure your organization fails”. This usually stems from a business decision that is in the best interest of the “victim” organization that the bully does not agree with and takes it personally. Isn’t the business world tough enough without having someone single-handedly trying to put another entity out our business—which is not good for anyone—even if it is a competitor!
Also quite alarming is that employers often unwittingly create conditions that foster and encourage bullying through their corporate culture with seemingly harmless things like contests or other competition-type incentive plans—even when not sales or production related—that are so often used by employers to motivate employees!
So, how do you recognize a bully in the workplace? Kickbully.com describes a successful workplace bully as being “much more clever rarely resembling the stereotypical bully. His methods are very subtle, disguised with all the right behaviors. In that lies his treachery. People respect and trust him, and he quietly betrays their trust whenever necessary to fulfill his ambitions. For him, the ends always justifies the means. And if the bully is particularly good at this, no one except his victims sees the betrayals. In some cases, not even the victims realize what has happened. To make matters worse, a highly skilled bully usually has the dedication, focus and business acumen to create success, or at least the appearance of success. Then he is honored and promoted, held up as an example of a company-centric leader. He is rewarded while the frustration builds among the targets of his bullying and intimidating, backstabbing and manipulating. For them, life has become an upside-down hell. A skilled, clever bully displays an elaborate, complex set of behaviors to exploit people around him. Those who only consider bullying to be blatantly aggressive behavior are missing the point. Any habitual pattern of intentional, socially cruel behavior is bullying, including the subtle tactics of deceit, distortion, misrepresentation and misdirection. When the penalty for resisting someone is destruction of your position and reputation, it’s fair to describe that person as a bully.”
Theworkdoctor.com nicely defines what bullying is not: “It is not incivility, simple rudeness, or the routine exercise of acceptable managerial prerogative. When abuse becomes routine, the work environment is toxic. Quality work and employee engagement are impossible. Neither is it a conflict between two equally-powered individuals who simply disagree over intellectual ideas.”
As an employer, how do we handle bullies? First, if an employee comes to us with concerns about another, we can’t be complacent and presume it is “simply a personality conflict” that two adults will work out—and remember—the bully is usually a trusted, long-time employee. We owe it to our employees, as well as the reputation of our organizations to look into what is happening. Document the conversation with “victim” employee, ask the employee to document specific incidents (either in the past or future) noting any “witnesses”, ask the victim if other employees are being bullied by the same person but are afraid to report it—you don’t need have them provide names, but you can ask them to convince the others to step forward, confidentially of course. Begin carefully observing interactions between not only the “victim and the bully, but also with other employees. Once you have all of your fats, speak with the “bully” about your observations only to maintain the confidence of the victim(s). Your only resolution may be separation from the “bully” and you don’t want any retaliation outside of work to victims. Be warned—according to one document I ran across, depending on the circumstances, the bully may threaten you with a whole host of “employee protections” such as whistle-blower policies and various forms of discrimination. Remember—they are a bully—and when they do this, they are now bullying you, the employer!
What can we do prevent bullying from taking place to begin with? This can be even trickier than dealing with the bully. First, be sure you are not fostering a corporate culture which encourages it—carefully examine any contests, incentive plans, etc—even promotion policies. Have regular interactions with all of your employees in large groups, small groups and one-on-one and not just on a formal basis at meetings. Sometimes just a small amount of one-on-one time where you can simply ask “How’s it going?” can provide more insight than anything else. Observe, observe, observe—and don’t be afraid to immediately address anything that you observe that makes you the slightest bit uncomfortable with the way your employees interact with another. And most importantly, create an anti-bullying policy for your company and treat it as just as important as you do your other harassment policies in your employee orientations and on-going training.
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