When Your Top Performer is a Bully

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You’ve got this employee who’s amazing. They can solve any technical problem without breaking a sweat, or maybe they could sell a burger franchise to a vegetarian commune. The only problem is, no one can stand working with them because they’re a bully. They know they’re awesome, workwise, and they figure that gives them carte blanche to treat everyone however they please.

It’s a painful problem because you really, really, really don’t want to let this person go. You know it would be impossible to find a replacement with their talents. But they’re making meatloaf out of your culture, shredding morale, and in addition to fearing you might lose some of your other good people because of this employee, you know you’re risking lawsuits if you don’t do something.

Workplace bullying involves repeated and persistent negative actions aimed at one or more individuals, leading to the creation of a hostile working environment. I’m not talking about Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault kind of bullying, there are clear laws against that. I’m talking about prima donnas who pitch fits when they don’t get their way, people who say demeaning things to other employees, people who ignore directives from higher ups, or sabotage the work of other people.

Usually bullies are smart enough to know who to ingratiate themselves with so they can keep behaving however they like to underlings or peers.

The hidden costs of employing a bully

The National Law Review reports that between 35-50% of American workers may be the victims or observers of abuse by workplace bullies and about 20% of this bullying crosses the line into workplace harassment. Some, like the organization Work Place Bullying, are trying to get laws passed against the practice. But right now, it’s pretty much up to the c-suite to decide whether to act.

The question is, how much is this person costing you? How much of your revenues, for example, do you attribute to their work and how much would you be willing to pay in, essentially damage costs, to keep them? There’s the cost of replacing employees who leave the company because of unchecked bullying which some studies put at 6-to-9 months’ salary, and others estimate is twice the employee’s yearly salary.

Then there’s the hard-to-quantify value of having a positive culture that lets you retain other employees and recruit future ones. One bully can fuel an awful lot of bad reviews on job boards and a number of one-star reviews can skew your reputation severely.

And in the worst-case scenario, at its worst, bullying can lead to lawsuits when not property addressed.

So, What Can You Do?


  1. Take performance out of the equation.

You wouldn’t think twice about dismissing a low-performing bully, so do you want to establish that if someone’s a top performer, their reward is to be empowered to bully? If you wouldn’t include that in your employee handbook or cultural description, it shouldn’t be allowed in your organization.

  1. Establish policies governing acceptable behavior, guidelines for how to report it, and lay out the consequences for ignoring them.
  2. Hold workshops and training sessions on workplace bullying, how to recognize it and what to do if your employees experience it.

As for bullies themselves, you need to acknowledge their talent and contributions, but also address their behavior, offer training and coaching, and if all else fails, be prepared to let them go.

If you’re not sure how to turn the situation around, we do this for a living. We’d be happy to help you establish policies and procedures that would not only put the kibosh on bullying but help create a workplace that attracts other top performers who don’t have personality issues. That, after all, is the kind of workplace everyone wants.

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.