No matter what kids’ show or holiday movie you grew up watching, bullies are almost universally represented as maladaptive kids from troubled homes who can’t show vulnerability and instead go around waging power struggles to make themselves feel less afraid in the world. Workplace bullies aren’t like that. Or rather, a lot of workplace bullies aren’t like that. If they come up and steal your lunch money and threaten to beat you up in the parking lot of your office, you are with a serious offender who could be charged with a crime. That is not typical with adults. It’s usually more insidious.
Workplace bullies often have no idea they’re perceived as bullies. They might interrupt and shout over people in meetings, write rude emails ridiculing or mocking others and point fingers of blame when there’s a problem. Frequently, such people really just think they’re being assertive and direct. Everyone else says “That person is such a jerk.” The bully just thinks they’re getting things done.
The High Cost of Bullies
As a leader, you may think that this person isn’t “So bad” or “Their bark is worse than their bite” and they do good work all the while others see them as intimidating. You won’t know how many employees are going out to lunch with each other or going home at night saying “I have to quit. I can’t handle the stress of working with that person,” until they quit. And next thing you know – they are also asking themselves “Why does the boss let this person stay and act like this?”
All these thoughts contribute to deterioration of your culture. If it becomes known that your organization is one that hires and tolerates bullies, anybody who just wants to do good work in a good environment is going to steer clear. Bullies who got fired from places that don’t put up with them, meanwhile, might be drawn to your organization.
Bullies can damage your organizational morale, hamper your ability to attract and keep good people, and cause undo time and resources to be devoted to turnover. But beyond that, think of the time lost in dealing with a bully. How much time is devoted to avoiding interactions with the bully, venting about the bully, recovering after an interaction with the bully or “plotting revenge” on the bully? This is not good for the bottom line.
Even more alarming is the high cost of bullies being accused of harassment and discrimination. The line is thin. Name calling, threats, intimidation, mockery, insults, and put-downs are pretty standard for bullies. Guess what? These are some of the same behaviors the EEOC finds in harassment and retaliation cases. We have been brought in to investigate many situations in which the initial issues with the bully were ignored by management and the situation escalated to an EEOC complaint. That is expensive even if no harassment based on protected class was found. It’s damaging to your organization.
How to Deal with a Bully
Start early in the relationship. You have to deal with this as soon as you learn of it. So how? You might begin with the assumption that this person is not a bully on purpose. Perhaps they forgot the lessons learned in kindergarten. Remember those? In that case, you’ll need to collect examples of their bullying behavior to help them see what the issue is. If it doesn’t work out, these examples will be helpful in letting the person go. But for starters, you have a meeting with the person and say “Hey, I don’t know if you’re aware of this but you’re creating some discomfort by the way you communicate with other employees.” And then you share your examples.
If the person is angry and defensive, they may need a day to think about it. If they’re still angry and defensive tomorrow, you may be dealing with someone who isn’t going to change.
If the person is shocked, they will need some time to process what you’ve told them. Then, you can talk about the examples and how they might have handled those situations differently. Then you determine how much time you’re going to give the person to adjust their behavior and bring it in line with your expectations for considerate and professional communication. And be aware that their next line of defense might be passive aggressive behavior…which is almost worse. So be prepared to communicate the boundaries again and take further action if they are not willing to change.
How Employees Should Deal with Bullies
The second part of the equation is that the folks in your organization need to feel confident enough to know how to stand up to bullying in a very direct way. Let’s say the bully talks over someone argumentatively in a meeting. Your employees can be trained and encouraged to say “Excuse me, we all listened when you talked. Now you’re not letting us talk. It’s time to listen while we share our opinions.” If they are not comfortable with that, that’s okay. They need to know you as the leader will remind everyone of the basic lessons of polite human interaction and hold them accountable to behave decently in the workplace.
You need to set communication and behavior boundaries that everyone understands…including the bully.
Not everybody is going to be comfortable with this process. It can be difficult to confront anyone, particularly those who don’t communicate well. But the cost to your organization if you don’t is just too high. And if you’d like help, well, we’ve done this plenty.