Dealing With Workplace Bullies

Hugh MacDonald

If we’re lucky, the last bully we saw was in the schoolyard. I haven’t been so fortunate. As a human resources professional, I’ve seen many workplace bullies. They use their highly aggressive behavior to ensure that decisions are made in their favor. I have seen bullies try to embarrass others, yell or otherwise attempt to awe everyone else with their power. It rarely works. If it works at all, it doesn’t work for long. I remember one executive who was notorious for pounding his fist and screaming at the top of his lungs during what were called "wire-brush" meetings—sessions used to "scrub" projects and initiatives that weren’t performing well. Instead of coaching, teaching and creating an environment where project and vendor managers would learn and grow, he created a climate of fear. Other executives, reporting to the first, started emulating him and spread the toxic behavior. What was at first a local storm threatened to become an embedded part of the workplace climate. The bullying was rationalized by the executives involved. They told themselves, "It works! Project performance has never been better." That was short lived, however. Project and vendor managers started to hide mistakes and keep information secret. Turnover increased and employee morale deteriorated. In time this affected project performance and relationships within the firm and with the vendor and supplier communities. Longer term customer satisfaction and financial performance were affected by the short term bullying. When the end came, several of the worst offenders were invited to leave the firm. It took time to create a new, more positive, working environment.

Bullying is a form of violence in the workplace and is dangerous. It can lead to behavior that is even worse—harassment and intimidation. I once was asked to investigate complaints about a manager accused of bullying employees who worked with tenants and maintenance staff in buildings across Canada. I visited several cities and got the same story from all of them. Their manager had the habit of meeting with them in their one-person offices to go over rent records and vendor reports. That was reasonable and a normal part of their job. While it wasn’t the most respectful of behaviors, it was also within the limits of "normal" practice for him to fly into their city late in the afternoon, and without notice, expect them to work overtime. What was unusual and troubling, however, was his habit of taking out a large knife and playing with it while he worked. Understandably, the employees found that action quite intimidating and this, when combined with the requests that they work overtime or stay late, went far beyond the bounds of simple bullying. In this case, the manager claimed not to be consciously aware of his actions. He was certainly oblivious as to how his behaviors were perceived by others. Faced with complaints from staff and suppliers, it was time for him to find another place to work.

In Peter Randall's book, Adult Bullying (1997), he promotes assertiveness as the best strategy to deal with workplace bullies. I agree. In my experience, standing up for yourself and calling the bully on his or her unacceptable behavior, initially in private and if necessary in public, is usually the most effective strategy. Sometimes bullies are just oblivious. They don’t think. Stop them, question them and help them become aware. Other times, people act like bullies because they don’t know how to get things done any other way. A few are afraid. And this is how they cover up their fear. Most of the time, however, office bullies are exhibiting learned behavior. Somebody else taught them that this was the way to manage others.

As a human resources professional, stand up for staff who can’t stand up for themselves. Help the manager un-learn bad or bullying behavior. If the employee can, help him or her learn to be assertive and teach tools and tactics such as "active listening," "being unconditionally respectful," "broken record" and providing their bully with a "face-saving way out."

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