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Why companies must stop office bullying

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Everyone knows that employees who are bullied at work are more likely to quit. But a new study from the University of British Columbia shows that it's not only the victim who is likely to bail -- the person's coworkers are also likely to leave their jobs:

Witnessing or learning about these impacts of workplace bullying is likely to promote empathetic responses. Employees witnessing coworkers being bullied, or merely talking to them about their experiences, are pushed toward taking the targets' perspective. Such perspective-taking leads one to experience cognitive or emotional empathy, which includes imagining how another feels... or actually sharing in another's feelings. These empathetic responses can contribute to the understanding that a significant moral violation has occurred and the recognition that the victim does not deserve his or her mistreatment. As a result of this moral uneasiness, bullying at large within a work unit will increase employee intentions to quit their work group

So when you have a bully in the office, it's not just the target that feels uncomfortable -- so do other employees, who often feel empathy for the person being pushed around and feel that the treatment is morally wrong. People also don't like working for a boss who allows, encourages, or engages in immoral behavior.

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How to handle a bully boss

What's the impact of workplace bullying on your business or department? Managers and HR departments alike typically ignore bullying because it's a difficult problem to solve. Bullies are often experts at manipulation, and they tend to choose their targets carefully. Managers may justify ignoring the situation by rationalizing that the victim is a poor employee. They also may hope that the bullied worker quits, rectifying the problem (which it doesn't because the bully then often picks a new victim).

As the study makes clear, bullying on the job is a problem for the whole team and, by extension, the whole company. As a manager, the last thing you want is a team that feels like the company is tolerating unethical or immoral behavior. They cannot trust you if you allow this to continue. As a result, morale suffers and people quit.

Here's what you can do to combat bullying in your group or unit:

1. Stop the denial. Nobody, even incompetent people, deserve to be treated unfairly or poorly. If you see that behavior going on, it's not the fault of the victim. Don't allow it to continue just because Jim isn't that good at his job, anyway.

2. Confront the bully directly. If you witness an incident or are informed of one, call the alleged bully into your office and explain that her behavior is unacceptable. Make sure the bully is aware that you will not stand for such behavior -- ever.

3. Put the bully on a performance improvement plan. Remember your kindergarten report card where there was a line for "plays well with others?" This is also a critical skill in the workplace. It's a rare employee who cannot be replaced by someone who isn't a jerk. If you have an employee who bullies others, that needs to be stopped or the bully needs to be fired.

4. Speak up. If you're not the manager but a peer of the bully, then speak up whenever you witness bad behavior. Defend the victim, and be honest in your appraisal. You don't have to be a tattletale, but be firm. "Holly, what you said about Jim is not true," or, "That is an unfair statement" or, "Did I just hear you say that Jim messed up on that project? Can you please clarify that for me?" 

Bullying is detrimental to any business. This study was conducted on nurses (where you think teamwork would be critical), but it's easy to see the implications for any department. Ignoring bullying doesn't make it go away, but it does make your other employees go away -- even the ones who aren't the victims. If you want to keep your valuable employees, stop the bullying.

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