Ridding the Workplace of a Bullying Culture

Last Updated Dec 4, 2007 7:28 PM EST

When we hear about bullying we tend to think of children at school. Unfortunately, it's no less common in the workplace, and though we might expect adults to behave differently, that's not always the case.

Not only is bullying highly detrimental to employee morale and individual well-being – leading to prolonged absences and disengagement from work which affects productivity – it can also be harmful to an organization's reputation.

It can be difficult to predict who might be inclined to bully others so you can avoid hiring those people. It is possible, however, to deal appropriately and effectively with bullying when it occurs, and to take action to prevent a culture that tolerates bullying from developing.

What You Need to KnowWhat if I see someone being bullied in someone else's team?

It is best not to try to resolve the situation yourself if you witness someone being bullied in another team. Simply discuss the situation with the manager of that team, formally document what you have seen, and offer to perform in a supporting role when action is taken.

What if the bullying is related to a personal, sensitive issue existing outside the workplace?

Whatever the root of the problem, bullying should be dealt with in the same way. No one should be subjected to bullying in the workplace. When dealing with a situation that stems from a personal issue that exists outside of the workplace, you may find it difficult to help the parties resolve the issue. You can, however, make it perfectly clear that what occurs outside of work must stay there and that you will not tolerate bullying at work. Be sensitive to sensitive topics, and reassure both parties that any personal matters will remain confidential.

What if I feel intimidated by the bully?

When attempting to deal with a bully, you must feel confident that you can relate to him or her without feeling intimidated in any way. Demonstrating that you are intimidated will not help to resolve the situation, and if you need to get a colleague involved to assist in handling the situation, then do so.

What if the person being bullied doesn't want to admit it, discuss it, or want me to take any action regarding the situation?

Some people will be reluctant to admit that they are being bullied; they may be embarrassed or feel that admitting it will only exacerbate the situation. It is important to discuss with them how you can help them to handle it and explain that it is in their interests as well as the organization's to deal with such individuals. If they remain adamant that they do not want to admit to it or take action despite your attempts to convince them, you may want to determine whether any other members of the team are being bullied. If they are, you will have a general responsibility to put an end to the bullying. Ultimately you must judge, based on the specific circumstances, whether or not to go against the victim's wishes and deal with the problem without his or her consent. If you decide not to take action you should continue to monitor the situation and be receptive and supportive should the victim change his or her mind.

What to DoMake It Clear that Bullying Is Not Acceptable

Your actions, behavior, and the way you deal with occurrences of bullying should all indicate that bullying will not be tolerated in your organization. You should engender a culture that is wholly averse to bullying of any kind. This is achieved by adhering to and communicating policy and procedure, by the way you deal with situations when they occur, and also through your general attitude and approach to employees and employee relations.

Be Proactive

Engendering a culture that does not tolerate bullying should include taking a proactive approach to recognizing and dealing with behavior that demonstrates bullying tendencies. Ensure that you fully monitor your team and that you are aware of what constitutes bullying or behavior that might signal the potential for bullying and deal with the situation before it becomes a serious incident.

Train Your Staff

Ensure that all employees are aware of the organization's stance on bullying and the formal policy for dealing with such matters. Providing your staff with training on how they can deal with bullying—such as assertiveness, confidence, self esteem, conflict resolution, communication, and interpersonal skills—may be one way of preventing a culture of bullying from developing.

Be Approachable

As a manager it is important that you be approachable so that employees who may experience bullying feel that they can come to you for guidance. Have an open-door policy and keep up to date with how your employees are doing. Listen to them when they come to you with any problems and put aside some time to spend dealing with their issues. This should be an ongoing managerial technique which will not only allow you to monitor your staff and any problems they have, but will also instill confidence that they will have your support should they experience bullying.

Choose an Appropriate Means of Resolving an Incident of Bullying: Direct Resolution or Complete Separation

A crucial element in ridding the workplace of bullying is dealing with specific incidents of bullying in a professional and effective manner.

Depending on the circumstances, you should determine whether or not it is appropriate to attempt to resolve the situation through direct contact and discussion or whether it is necessary to separate the parties while an investigation takes place. The general rule is that in a case of unwitting bullying, the parties should be brought together, but if the bullying is more serious, the two should be kept separate (unless the victim requests otherwise).

Bring the Parties Together

When you bring the parties together, your role will be to facilitate the discussion and make sure that it is constructive and leads to resolution and not further arguments or distress. Ask both parties to contribute fully to the discussion and present their perspectives on the situation, but also ask the right questions and lead the conversation in a constructive direction. Interpret comments that are made by the individuals involved and feed them back into the discussion in a way that will be understood in their intended context. Develop a plan of action that should prevent the situation from occurring in the future and that both parties agree to. Formally document the meetings and your plan and arrange to revisit the situation periodically. It is important that you maintain contact with both parties and observe the situation in order to make sure that it does not happen again.

Separate the Parties

In some cases it may be appropriate to separate the victim and the bully. It is important that you monitor the separation and continue to provide support to the victim and get feedback on whether or not the separation is proving successful.

Provide Reassurance and Support

When you are approached by an employee who is being bullied, be sure to fully reassure that person that you will deal with the bullying in an appropriate and professional manner. Clearly explain the organization's policy on bullying and the actions you will take to resolve the situation. Listen carefully to the employee's concerns and answer any questions that he or she might have so that the person feels comfortable with your strategy.

Remain Impartial

Though you will inevitably have a relationship with both the victim and the bully, be careful not to make assumptions (positive or negative) based on your relationship with the people involved. This is the point at which you must become an impartial advisor and manage the situation with complete objectivity. When dealing with a delicate subject such as bullying, it is important that you assume a supportive role while remaining emotionally detached from the situation.

Manage the Impact on the Rest of the Team

As a manager you will need to manage the impact that a situation involving bullying will have on the rest of your team. If the situation becomes evident to all, and the victim has given consent, you may wish to discuss with each team member what has occurred. Do remember, however, that you must respect the confidentiality of the circumstances and ensure that the victim is comfortable with making the team aware of what is going on.

What to AvoidYou Fail to Deal with False Accusations

False accusations of bullying should have consequences too. Accusations of bullying should always be taken seriously and treated with sensitivity, but if it the allegations turn out to be false, the situation should be handled appropriately. It is important that you emphasize that false or malicious accusations of bullying will be taken seriously. False accusations are a waste of time, harmful to team morale, and especially damaging to the individual accused of bullying. In this case, you should try to get to the cause of the allegation, as it is likely to have stemmed from some form of disagreement or conflict, which may in itself need to be dealt with.

You Fail to Apply Your Bullying Policy to All Members of Your Staff

Bullying policies should apply to everyone from the chief executive to agency staff, and from directors to cleaning staff. Do not assume that certain individuals will not be capable of bullying, and similarly do not assume that those employees who spend less time in the workplace are less likely to be the victims of bullying. When dealing with allegations, avoid making assumptions based on grade, length of time at the company, or working hours.

Where to Learn MoreWeb Sites:

Workplace Bullying Institute: www.bullyinginstitute.org

Bully Busters: http://bullybusters.org

Purdue University: www.purdue.edu/HR/LeadingEdition/LEdi_705_workplace_bullies.htm

MindTools: www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_84.htm