Bullying in professional settings is a problem most managers would rather not have to face. Sadly, however, it is quite prevalent. At some point in your career, you will almost certainly come across a workplace bully, a subordinate who claims to have been harried by an employer or supervisor, or a person who is either directly or indirectly affected by workplace bullying.
Tormentors of all ages tend to share some common characteristics. One is a propensity to target individuals whom the bully considers weaker or less fortunate than h/erself. Another is the compensatory impulse: compulsive browbeaters often suffer from insecurity and a lack of self-esteem, which they try to repress by taking out their frustrations on others—especially those not in a position to defend themselves.
Recently, a team manager told me that a worker at her institution had complained to her about bullying by a superior. While the manager said she believed the allegations were true, she also worried that the problem would be challenging to resolve. Confronting someone over the kind of misbehaviour that most people associate with grade school can be awkward, and requires considerable courage on the part of an organizational leader.
While there are no magic-bullet fixes, the following pointers may help:
Trust your intuition.
Adults who have been targeted by bullies are generally reluctant to admit to themselves that bullying has truly taken place. This is partly because the line between innocent teasing and bullying is ambiguous—and from an employee’s point of view, there are strong disincentives against reporting undesirable behaviour by superiors or co-workers. What if your boss sides with the bully? What if it’s your word against h/ers? In particular, young employees are usually loath to upset the apple cart, lest they risk compromising their budding careers.
The first prerequisite for solving any problem is to acknowledge that it exists. This holds true both for people subjected to bullying, and managers of business environments in which bullying happens. If you suspect that bullying is a problem in your workplace...it probably is.
Leaders: stop malicious rumours.
Bullying among adults tends to be more subtle and insidious than bullying among children or teens, since many adult bullies aim to maintain plausible deniability. One of the common forms that adult bullying takes is the malicious rumour. As a leader, you have both a responsibility and a great deal of power when it comes to stopping mean-spirited gossip in your organization. Make it plain to everyone that there is no place for behind-the-back innuendo in the professional atmosphere you hope to foster.
If you are a target of bullying, take note of the micro-aggressions. These may include untoward e-mails, social media comments, memos, or text messages. Carry a notepad and pen at all times (discreetly), or record information on your smartphone. If you find yourself in a situation in which another individual or group tries to belittle you, take a moment to write down the name of the perpetrator(s), the nature of the maltreatment, and any witnesses. Written records and witness testimony will prove beneficial if the need to file an official complaint arises.
Establish an anti-bullying policy for your organization.
First, all members of your organization must have a basic understanding of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. This may require you to set some ground rules.
A well formulated anti-bullying policy should outline a coherent process for dealing with the issue. In particular, there must be a clear and consistent definition of bullying—including abusive language, shouting, unfair or unwarranted criticism, and deliberate ostracism of an individual. Further, employees and other potential targets of bullies must know how and where to submit complaints, and feel confident that they will face no recriminations for doing so in good faith. This may require anonymity.
Finally, there must be consequences for perpetrators, including disciplinary action and, in serious or repeat-offender cases, suspension or dismissal. If those who have been bullied believe their tormentor will face no real repercussions, or that their complaint won’t be taken seriously, they may abstain from the process, or even resign from their position.
Although it may be a challenge to confront workplace bullying, it is crucial to do so promptly, professionally, and effectively.