Written by Tory Waldron
October 19, 2018
Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t just stop off in the school yard. Bullies grow up just like everyone else. And where do they land? The workplace.
The unfortunate truth is that bullying is a universal phenomenon – a species-typical human behavior that is consistent across all societies and all age groups. But, with the combinatory effects of language, social media, technology, and culture, bullying is becoming more and more visible in our society. Many incidences of bullying have led to suicides at K-12 schools over the past decade and, as a result, there has been an enormous response to this “bullycide” crisis in the United States with local, regional, and Federal levels working to combat bullying and its impacts.
But what about the workplace? Schools can be a dangerous place, but workplace bullying can become even more insidious because livelihoods are at stake.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:
Bullying typically involves a real or perceived power imbalance, which is inherent at any company by nature of hierarchies and rankings. Naturally, a manager will outrank an entry level employee, and therefore have more ‘power’ in the workplace. And, statistically, 61% of workplace bullying is perpetrated by bosses, according to WBI’s 2017 survey. But there are also invisible forces at play as well. It is entirely possible for a subordinate to exert their power over a superior simply through subtle psychological warfare, like ‘freezing’ them out from a work or social activity.
As an HR professional, you may wonder whether workplace bullying is even a battle worth fighting; after all, a lot of bullies are smart enough to cover their tracks and fly under the radar. However, the negative effects of workplace bullying are far-reaching and costly. From loss of productivity to disruptions in day-to-day operations, higher rates of staff turnover, increased recruitment/training costs, and even legal fees – it is always in the company’s best interest to identify and adjust bullying behaviors. And, even more importantly, a workplace with a bullying problem creates a toxic internal company culture and a poor company reputation, making it very hard to recruit top talent.
If you are an HR professional encountering reports of workplace bullying, read on to learn about the different personas of workplace bullies and how to deal with them the right way to make your office a safer and happier place to work.
Some gossip can be harmless; it can be a good way to blow off steam during a stressful workweek. However, if these words reach the ears (or eyes) of the person being talked about, this can turn sour quite quickly. Nothing creates rifts in a team like a group of people ganging up on, or making fun of, a lone victim. This type of bully is often found in tight-knit social circles at work. They also may go out of their way to make the victim feel excluded from work or social activities.
One of the most recognizable workplace bullies, the screamer will raise their voice to those they dislike – often swearing or threatening their victim mentally, psychologically, emotionally, or even physically! You can hear them coming a mile away – huffing and puffing, their voice bellowing through a closed office door. This type of bully is quite intimidating, but they are also easier to reprimand because their upsetting behavior is so visible.
A critiquer can be difficult to spot in the workplace. It’s hard to tell the difference between constructive feedback and over-the-top criticism. It is even harder to define this line if the critiquer is also a manager, particularly when it comes to giving performance feedback. This type of bully may use yearly reviews to withhold title changes and keep their subordinates right in their pocket. Over time, this bully can erode an employee’s identity and confidence.
The Puppet Master is typically found in a position of power and enjoys using his/her subordinates as pawns for entertainment. They may ask an employee to bring them coffee each day, or they may pit their coworkers against one another to win a single performance bonus. Their goal is personal amusement at the expense of others.
This employee acts like a friend, but they have no qualms about throwing their colleagues straight under the bus whenever it suits their purposes. These bullies are hard to detect because their identities are not revealed until they have already done the damage. This type of bully may undermine their victims, take credit for their work, or get them to divulge personal information and use it against them to get a step up in the company.
This is a tricky bully. They are hard to identify because they aren’t actively targeting any of their colleagues. Instead, they find a way to separate themselves from the herd by hoarding resources, talents, and information, and refusing to share these with anybody. In this way, they simultaneously have job security and power (they withhold information and use their knowledge as leverage against others). Therefore, they are able to control deadlines and create stress.
This bully reads emails over their employees' shoulders and nitpicks them for anything – from outfits to working paces to long lunchtime breaks. This bully beats down their victim over time by suffocating them slowly and injecting fear into their day-to-day working life. Many micromanagers don’t know what they are doing, nor do they realize how damaging their behavior is – which makes this HR conversation all the more difficult.
This bully hides behind their title or tenure, and their role is typically protected by upper management as well. Because of their job security, they feel comfortable saying or doing exactly what they want to those they dislike. This is a dangerous breed and their existence points to a toxic working environment, top-down.
A poor company culture breeds bullies. Even employees who otherwise would not normally partake in bullying may become bullies in the wrong environment. A huge factor for this is a competitive environment. If employees are pitted against each other – competing bitterly for title changes or salary increases – people may see the workplace as a “me against the world” environment and lash out to protect their position and resources.
Moreover, if promotions and rewards are given to bullies, this can embolden the behavior. The only way to truly reduce the impact of bullying is by firmly letting the office know that this behavior will not be tolerated.
Policy, policy, policy. Your company needs a very specific and direct policy that forbids any bullying behavior. Your policy should include the following things:
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