The Right Way to Handle an Office Bully

Last Updated Apr 19, 2010 10:51 AM EDT

We recently wrote in this space about the phenomenon of female bullies in the workplace. But of course they come in all shapes, sizes and sexes, and they are tremendously destructive to productivity and morale.

Managers have to deal with the problem -- a bully left unchallenged is a nightmare. But a bully challenged the wrong way can spew a toxic ash cloud all over your office.

I like the process outlined by leadership coach Cheryl Dolan on her BBR.org blog. Here are some of her tips.

  • Confront the bully immediately -- even in mid-meeting. Productivity is not possible when a belligerent SOB is smoking up the room.
  • Appeal to the bully's self-interest. In Dolan's example, a bully is told by a supervisor that his rantings are causing personal embarrassment and affecting corporate results.
  • Confront the bully publicly and privately. Why publicly? Dolan says "bullies hate public humiliation."
These are great tips (and there are more here), but I think something is missing. If it were me confronting a rogue employee, I'd want to make sure the HR department is fully involved in the process from the beginning, and that I've documented the bad behavior three ways from Sunday.

Dolan's overall point is right on. Most managers, according to statistics she cites, do not challenge bullies, and even punish employees that do. Don't let this happen in your business. Deal with the problem aggressively and directly.

The BNET archives is full of great advice on handling bullies.

Have you slapped down a bully at work? What was your experience?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.