What’s a boss to do: For bosses the handling of bullying cases can be very delicate. It’s a problem that frankly we could do without, but one that we must treat seriously when it is brought to our attention or we can see it happening. At some level it is natural for people who must spend time together to have differences of opinions. Sometimes we see our colleagues more often than our families, so conflict can occur. However, work place bullying is different and can affect an entire team/ organization. If a good manager doesn’t deal with it proactively, it can seriously undermine the aims of the workplace and seriously jeopardize employee’s health and well being.

This post is specifically for managers and business owners to help them to know what to do should a case of bullying be confirmed or suspected in work.

First, it may help to define what we are dealing with here. The courts in Ireland define work place bullying as:

”..repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, is not considered to be bullying.”

This implies that we are looking for a continued affront to the dignity at work of an employee by another member of staff. However, bullying cases do need to start somewhere, so small incidents can begin to lead to the above and should not be tolerated. Considering that people don’t typically perform well when working in high-anxiety situations, employers face a loss of productivity due to workplace bullying. Stanford University’s Bill Sutton has suggested that productivity could decline up to a 40% when workers are distracted by bullying. Aside from the distraction, bullied employees also feel a loss of motivation, reduced ability to come to work and even burnout.

Examples of behaviour that may constitute bullying are as follows:

  • Purposely undermining someone;
  • Targeting someone for special negative treatment;
  • Manipulation of an individual‘s reputation;
  • Social exclusion or isolation;
  • Intimidation;
  • Aggressive or obscene language;
  • Jokes that are obviously offensive to one individual by spoken word or email;
  • Intrusion by pestering, spying and stalking;
  • Unreasonable assignments to duties which are obviously un-favourable to one individual;
  • Repeated requests with impossible deadline or impossible tasks

In a bullying situation a bully may personally be triggered by a co-worker in some way leading to the behaviour. Workplace bullies can also tend to target the employees who are the best and brightest employees because they want to drive out anyone they see as a threat to their own personal career advancement, or anyone who might even make them look bad. These bullies attack the very people you want working for your company.

If, despite your best efforts, you still have an employee that bullies another employee, addressing it may be key to harmony within the work team. If you have a human resources department, be sure to bring it to their attention. Be sure to follow your company’s guidelines for addressing workplace bullying and harassment.

For some there may be no precedent for bullying in the team, therefore we’re have put out the below to help managers deal with this headache issue.

  1. Holding the persons who have acted in a bullying manner accountable.

Sometimes the “go work it out between yourselves” approach can be sidestepping your responsibility as a manager. Choosing to do nothing can mean that the problem continues or even gets worse, leading to more damage and distress.

Your job of dealing with unacceptable behaviour is easier if there a clear statement or policy outlining what is acceptable conduct and what is not within the organization. If you don’t have one yet, you can always create one. If such a policy does not exist, write a list of what you consider unacceptable. Look online for other bullying/dignity at work policies. Use work-relevant impacts to justify each item. Share that list with everyone you have responsibility for.

If the alleged bully is close to you, you may will have trouble believing that she or he is capable of being a bully. To tackle the problem, you must try to be impartial. All your other employees are counting on you to do so. Before questioning the alleged bully, provide separation from the complainant, and try to assure that a first meeting is not punitive. Do this because retaliation can follow questioning of the bully. Bullies may justify their conduct – they’re pushing the employee to be better, it was harmless fun, or the other person is over sensitive. Assess the relevance in terms of impact on the team’s ability to perform without fear.

If your company is small and does not have an HR department, talk with the employee about his or her actions. Document the incident in the employee’s file. Include details about the incident, information about your meeting, as well as dates, times and witnesses so that you have this information should the employee bully the same person again or a different person. At the close of the meeting, be sure that the offending employee knows what could happen if he or she continues to bully others.

Do not pull the victim of the bullying into the meeting with you. Remember, a victim of bullying often feels intimidated by the aggressor, so your attempts to get the full story or to mediate the situation will not be productive. You need to speak with them both separately.

If you are checking with other employee about what they have seen, your rational should be clear. For 1:1 interviews with employees it can be helpful to frame it as a “check in” of the work climate, rather than a formal “investigation.” Getting information from terrified employees is nearly impossible. Many side with bullies for self-protection. Ask if they personally have ever had negative encounters with the alleged bully.  Ask if negative things that go on in work might be hidden from you. Ask if they have seen personal changes, minor or major, in any co-workers.

If the facts confirm that there was unacceptable behaviour, an apology from the bully may be appropriate or depending on the situation other appropriate consequences may be necessary. Promise co-workers freedom from bullying in the future. Help support the targeted workers mental health. Monitor the bully’s conduct, imposing the threat of termination for non-compliance with the policy or your list. Paradoxically, having gone through these steps makes it unlikely that people will behave in this way again, it also means you are more prepared.

2.)  Catch and correct things in the moment that may contribute to an environment of bullying.

If you stumble on an employee berating another employee in an unacceptable way, you can intervene. The least risky method is simply to interrupt the incident regarding some other matter. Then, deal with it the behaviour of the person behind closed doors for dignity’s sake.

When you are with the employee you have called aside, make the case for stopping this behaviour. Encourage change by citing impact on employee health, morale, productivity, trust and loyalty. If an anti-bullying policy exists, remind him or her of the hassle of a complaint and investigation. If it is another manager, remind them that good managers do not use tactics of intimidation, domination or humiliation.  Become the anti-bullying advocate within the management team.

Foster a team atmosphere and encourage people to work together and support one another. Also, be sure to squash any attempts employees make to gossip, spread rumors or to talk poorly about other co-workers. For instance, if an employee says: “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but…” stop him or her right there and say, “Yep, you probably shouldn’t tell me.”

3.)  It is helpful to look at your own Management Style: Could you sometimes be perceived as a bully?

This is the hardest step of all. Ask your family or colleagues you trust about this. Ask yourself: Do I feel constantly misunderstood and mis-perceived? Do I think my standards are high and wonder why others seem to not care as much as me?

Indicators at work include being excluded from social events. At meetings, are your ideas never met with dissenting views? Is the employee turnover rate your work higher than you would expect? Is absenteeism so high that productivity is impacted? Do you find it hard to keep employees long term?

Look in the mirror, perhaps there is an issue with yourself. Turn to your staff to ask what would need to change to eliminate any of the above problems. Be open to receiving feedback.

Finally, once you have addressed the issue, follow up on the situation to see if any additional bullying has occurred, or even check in with colleagues how are you coming across. You may need to monitor this situation for several months to a year. Bullies are often reluctant to change their behaviour because it works for them.

If a member of your team or an employee has been severely impacted by bullying. Abate Counselling and EAP provide nationwide counselling support for employees to help get them back on their feet. If they are willing to attend, we also provide coaching and counselling to persons who have engaged in bullying behaviour, including Anger Management.

We are a pay as you use service and there is no cost to set up a relationship with us, only if you approve an employee for short term counselling. We can be contacted on 1800 222 833 or through info@abatecounselling.com for more information.

We hope you enjoyed this article and please share if you found it useful!

Team Abate Counselling and EAP

A companies’ most valuable asset is their employees, we’re the insurance.