By: Gary Namie, PhD, author of The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels & Snakes from Killing Your Organization (Wiley, 2011).
Back in 2007, many were surprised to learn that 37% of all adult Americans claimed to have been bullied at work. The scientific poll by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) used the definition: repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of either verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation, interference with work or some combination. Bosses were the main perpetrators (in 72% of incidents). Workplace bullying held steady at 35% according to the 2010 WBI survey.
Employers have a dismal record of voluntarily dealing with bullying. Why? Bullying benefits executives. Or people don’t know how to stop it. If the former is true, laws are needed to compel attention. Better to assume knowledge and skill shortcomings.
While waiting for executives to realize the benefits from adopting a comprehensive solution, there is much that can be done by managers and supervisors to tamp down bullying and dilute its destructive impact on employee and organizational health.
Here are three simple action steps for managers that can be done today.
1.) Hold confirmed bullies accountable. Drop the “go work it out between yourselves” ducking of your responsibility as manager. Get involved or the festering problem eventually will prevent any work from getting done.
Your task is easier if there a clear statement about what conduct is, and is not, acceptable in the company. If none exists, you can always create one in collaboration with the team that applies to those you supervise. If such a code does not exist, write a list of what you consider unacceptable. Use work-relevant impacts to justify each item. Share that list with everyone you supervise.
If the alleged bully is your favorite, you will have trouble believing that she or he is capable of being mean. To solve the problem, you have to shelve favoritism. All your other employees are counting on you to do so.
Before questioning the alleged bully, provide the complaining target with physical separation for safety, assuring that it is not punitive. Do it because retaliation follows questioning of the bully. Bullies will justify their conduct -- targets make them do it or they are perfectionists. Assess the relevance in terms of impact on the work team’s ability to perform without fear.
The rationale for your 1:1 interviews with employees is a “checkup” of the work climate, rather than an “investigation.” Getting information from terrified coworkers is nearly impossible.
Many side with bullies for self-protection. Ask if they personally ever had negative encounters with the alleged bully. Ask how negative things can be hidden from you. Ask if they have seen personal changes, minor or major, in any coworkers.
Should you be concerned? Believe the accuser until proven otherwise. Bullies lie. Humiliated targets are ashamed. With a mind untainted by favoritism, you will understand the competing versions of reality represented by the alleged bully and target.
If the facts confirm that your “line in the sand” was crossed, make the bully apologize. Choose other appropriate consequences (HR can advise). Promise coworkers freedom from bullying in the future. Help restore the targeted worker’s health -- paid time off, counseling, support. Monitor the bully’s conduct, imposing the threat of termination for non-compliance with the policy or your list. Practice in executing this step makes it easier. Paradoxically, it also becomes rarer.
2.) Catch and correct peer bullies. If you stumble on a colleague berating a worker, you can intervene. The least risky method is to tug on the manager’s arm to remove her or him. Simply interrupt the incident. Then, deal with it behind closed doors for dignity’s sake. It is more likely that a worker supervised by your subordinate or by another supervisor seeks your help. Do not ignore the person who asked you for relief.
When you have the manager alleged to be a bully alone, make the case for stopping the bullying behavior. Encourage change by citing impact on employee health, morale, productivity, trust and loyalty. If an anti-bullying policy exists, remind her or him of the hassle of a complaint and investigation. Good managers do not use tactics of intimidation, domination or humiliation. Become the anti-bullying advocate within the management team.
3.) Your Management Style: Could you be the bully? This is the hardest step of all. Ask your family. Do you feel constantly misunderstood and misperceived? Do you think your standards are high and wonder why others seem to not care as much as you? Is it impossible for you make your contributions subordinate to those of others?
Indicators at work include being excluded from social events. At meetings, are your ideas never met with dissenting views? Is the employee turnover rate in units you supervise higher than elsewhere in the organization? Is absenteeism so high that production is subpar? Do you see decline in the pool of available talent so that no new hires seem acceptable?
Look in the mirror. You are the problem. Turn to your staff to ask how you could change to eliminate the above problems. Follow their instructions.
Dr. Gary Namie is President of The Work Doctor®, consulting specialists in workplace bullying. He is co-author of The Bully-Free Workplace and directs the Workplace Bullying Institute.
Read more about management skills:
What Makes a Great Boss?
Good Boss, Bad Boss, Be the Boss: A Conversation with Bob Sutton
Difficult Employees: A Bad Apple in the Bunch