How to Handle a Workplace Bully

Last Updated Feb 17, 2009 6:57 PM EST

If you run a typical American company —
whether you have 10,000 employees or 25 — then you probably
have a bully in your business. According to
a 2007 survey conducted by Zogby International, almost half of U.S. workers report that they have
experienced or witnessed some kind of bullying on the job - insults, threats,
screaming, or ostracism. It's behavior that drags
down company morale and can be costly in innumerable ways: Think higher
turnover, lower productivity, more sick days, and more workmen's
compensation claims, just for starters.

Here's how managers can handle a bully in the
office, keep costs associated with such behavior in check, and maintain a
civilized workforce.


How to Identify a True Bully


Goal: Understand what constitutes bullying and
recognize it in action.


Most bullies don’t act up in front of their
superiors, so managers must rely on reports from other employees. Tools that
let subordinates review their bosses anonymously, like the 360-degree
performance review, can shed light on how a person behaves when management is
not around, says href="http://www.foxrothschild.com/Attorneys/Attorney.aspx?id=1114">Anne Ciesla Bancroft, a Princeton, N.J.,
employment attorney with Fox Rothschild.

It’s not hard to identify a bully if you’re
getting complaints of screaming, tantrums, public humiliation, sabotage, and
verbal abuse. But watch for the more subtle signs of a problem, as well: the
person who always takes credit for things others obviously contributed to, or
who dominates meetings with sarcasm, interruptions, or insults. Keep an eye out
for people who are afraid to speak up, or signs of obvious tension in certain
groups. Body language can be an indicator: Notice for instance, if Bob
consistently doodles, rolls his eyes, or squeaks his chair when Sally talks —
and only when Sally talks. Keep an eye out for “mobbing,”
in which a group of people gangs up on another worker. “It
often hides under the appearance of humor, but it’s really, ‘All
five of us making fun of you,’” says
Michael Dreiblatt, co-founder of Balance Educational Services, which trains
educators on how to deal with bullying and prevent violence. A group may even ostracize
one worker — for example, continually “forgetting”
to put Sarah on the group email list despite her multiple requests to be
included.


What Not to Do

How Managers Unwittingly Encourage Bullying

  1. Pit workers against each other or emphasize a
    competitive work style.
  2. Have a lax management style, so that employees must fill
    in the blanks themselves regarding what is acceptable and what is not.
  3. Make unreasonable demands and goals of employees and
    managers.
  4. Fail to give supervisors the authority to reprimand
    problem workers.
  5. Set impossible deadlines or provide too little
    funding to accomplish a goal.

Confront the Person Sooner, Not Later


Goal: Act fast to show that your company won’t
tolerate bad behavior.


The biggest mistake employers make, according to Gary Namie of the
Workplace Bullying Institute, is
that they don’t pay attention to bullying until it results in
a crisis. When grievances emerge, handle them immediately —
otherwise victims will stop reporting bad behavior. Talk with the bully and be
direct but not confrontational or emotional. Be specific about the behavior: Saying
“You told someone to shut up” or “You
called someone an idiot” works better than saying “You’re
not being nice” or “You’re
not being a team player.”


After you describe the complaints, ask for the bully’s
thoughts. Watch their style. Do they blame others? Do they get angry? Their
reaction may tell you a lot about that person and whether they can change, says
Holly Latty-Mann, president of The Leadership Trust, a
executive consulting firm in Durham, N.C. Try asking the offender if he or she
would want their spouse or their child to be treated the same way at work. “Often
their whole demeanor will soften,” Latty-Mann says.

If bullying has proven to be a pattern, it’s important
to communicate with HR about the problem employee or perhaps include an HR
official in meetings with the accused, says href="http://sandygluckman.blogspot.com/">Sandy
Gluckman, author of “Who’s in
the Driver’s Seat: Using Spirit to Lead Successfully.”

Danger! Danger! Danger!

Target the Behavior, Not the Person

Too many managers personalize the issue when confronting
workplace bullies, says Namie, who, in addition to the Workplace Bullying
Institute, runs Work Doctor, a consulting
firm that deals with bullying. Do not confuse the person with their conduct, he
says. Do not ask them to “change” but
instead tell them that the behavior itself must stop. Don’t
get sucked into a bully’s defense that their target somehow
deserves the mistreatment. “Tell them, ‘Regardless
of your motive or the reason, it has to stop,’”
Namie says.


Enforce a Clear Action Plan


Goal: Determine if the offender should be written up, get
counseling, lose pay, or ultimately be fired.


Before reprimanding an employee, check your company’s
procedures and policies for guidance. If there is none, be sure to be
consistent. “What you do to Bob is what you would do to Jim
or Mary,” Dreiblatt says. As long as the situation is not too
severe, a verbal warning is probably fine for the first conversation, although
Dreiblatt recommends informally documenting what was said.

If there is a second or third incident, the bullying is a
pattern and written reprimands are warranted, as are penalties such as removing
the person from key projects, demoting them, or docking their pay. This is also
the time to involve HR. “Make employment contingent upon
change,” Namie says.

If the employee is considered valuable — perhaps
a star engineer, a top salesman, or someone who might walk and take key clients with them —
then you may want to consider coaching, counseling, or anger management. But
this only works if the person has the ability and desire to change. If the
bully is insincere and is unlikely to get it, then fire him or her quickly,
advises Bob
Sutton
, author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a
Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.
To protect yourself legally, be sure to give a warning and document the
behavior. Don’t just transfer the person to a new job,
because that only passes the problem along to someone else. Remember: the cost
to your organization in terms of bad morale, turnover, emotional distress, or
low productivity may be equal to or greater than the cost of lost talent or
clients.


Hot Tip

The True Cost of Bullying

Sutton’s book cite="mailto:Steven%20Hiatt" datetime="2008-10-17T16:04"> The
No Asshole Rule
datetime="2008-10-17T16:04"> offers one pointed way to show a
bully the impact of his or her behavior: Quantify how much time managers have
spent dealing with complaints about that particular person and how much time it
will take to look for replacements if co-workers or subordinates quit because
of the work environment. Then take that much money from the person’s
bonus or pay as a motivator for them to change.


Devise Your Own Policy for a Civilized Workplace



Goal: Create a corporate culture of respect.


Bullies often tend to be smart, successful, productive
employees, so top executives may be slow to reprimand or fire them. For this
reason, it’s important to have a policy on record. Enlist HR to amend your sexual harassment policy to
include bullying. Bullying is not included in discrimination policies because
it is not against the law (yet), but you can indicate in your policy that certain
behaviors are inconsistent with your company culture. Outlaw tantrums,
screaming, intimidation, threats, and any repetitive behavior that undermines
colleagues. Give employees the means to come forward and report any violations
without fear of retaliation, and ensure that your CEO and top executives will
back up HR and managers when they lay down the law. “If you can’t
get your CEO to buy into this, you’re going to be wasting
your time,” Hirschfeld says.

Perhaps the best way to discourage bullying is to make civility
part of your corporate culture. Top executives should take the lead, speaking
kindly to employees, showing them respect, and encouraging open communication
by being present and accessible. Give managers more autonomy and more
responsibility for keeping teams together, and reward employees for working
together and helping each other to meet shared goals. Teach your employees how
to handle confrontation, says Sutton, and how to avoid emotional conflict,
second-guessing, complaining, and arguing after a decision is made.

Point out bad behavior to bullies immediately. “Day-to-day
follow-through and your interactions with staff will speak much louder than a
corporate memorandum,” Dreiblatt says. For instance, if you see
someone behaving inappropriately, such as intimidating or putting down others
in a meeting, pull them aside immediately and tell them that their behavior isn’t
tolerated at the company, Dreiblatt suggests.
“I’d say, ‘You need to
back off and listen to others. And I’m going to check up on
you.’”

For Example

How to Disagree

Intel provides all new full-time employees with “constructive
confrontation” training, which teaches people to attack the
problem, not people, and to do it positively. An example from the company’s
training handbook: “Jane dominates meetings. John lets Jane know
that when she dominates the meetings, he feels reluctant to share his thoughts
and suggests perhaps they try a ‘ cite="mailto:Steven%20Hiatt" datetime="2008-10-17T16:08"> round
robin’ datetime="2008-10-17T16:08"> approach in future meetings. They
then agree to touch base again and see if the approach is working. John did not
go to Jane and ask her to stop dominating the meetings. He explained how he
felt and offered a solution that will hopefully work for all parties.”


Screen for Bullies in the Recruiting Process


Goal: Stop the problem from recurring by identifying
bullies during the hiring process.


To keep your company bully-free, be attentive in the interview
process. Resist the temptation to hire a hotshot when it’s
obvious he or she is a jerk, Sutton says. Check references carefully to root
out past instances of bullying. Pay attention to how your candidate interacts
with administrative assistants and lower-level employees, and encourage those
employees to report rude or disrespectful behavior.

The natural human tendency to hire people like oneself becomes
dangerous when bullies are in charge of hiring. Product development firm IDEO
narrows the margin for this kind of error with a team approach: Each candidate
is interviewed by people who will work above, below, and alongside him or her. The
company’s hiring managers also put a high priority on good
references and select candidates for professional competence before they
walk in the door, so the interview can focus on their human qualities.

During the interview, pay attention to how much a candidate says
“I” versus “we”
when talking about achievements, Latty-Mann advises. Ask the person to describe
a frustrating project. You can spot a potential bully if he or she mentions
incompetent people or displays exasperated body language, perhaps rolling the
eyes or using a disparaging tone. To gauge the level of compassion a manager
might have in firing a worker, ask how they would handle incompetent employees.
Observe their body tension, level of compassion, and tone of voice, Latty-Mann
suggests.



Nitty Gritty


Gloves-Off References

If you want to dig deeper, ask the job candidate to sign a
permission slip allowing former employers to give meaningful information about
them without fear of a lawsuit. Ask candidates directly if anybody has raised
issues about their ability to interact with other employees and request
performance reviews from their former employers, Hirschfeld suggests. “Any
applicant who objects a little bit about that — that says
something,” he says.

  • Jennifer Alsever

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