How to Stop Workplace Bullying
Most of us have seen or experienced, a workplace bully. One in five Americans have been the target of a workplace bully, and an equal number have witnessed such bullying. Management must lead the way in getting the message across that bullying behavior will not be tolerated by anyone in their place of business. Training employees in workplace civility can be an important tool in building a corporate culture of respect where bullying and harassment aren’t tolerated.
This is a topic that hits close to home for me as a CEO. It’s important to me that my employees have a safe work environment. Not only safe from physical harm, but also safe to be who they are. We work as a team. I want employees to know they are not alone and always have support. Bullying can damage that healthy, safe environment.
Unfortunately, a bully or harasser can be anywhere in a company. They are found at any pay grade and any position on the organizational chart. And bullying happens far, far more often than is reported to management.
Not only am I a CEO, but I am the CEO of a training company. It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve found that proper training, along with the proper policies and accountability, have helped instill a corporate culture of respect and civility—and that has made workplace bullying virtually nonexistent.
What Constitutes Workplace Bullying?
Before I get into more about civility and training to prevent bullying, I want to get clear on what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about workplace bullying. Too often, people assume that if they don’t see schoolyard-style bullying, it isn’t happening. Or they get bullying mixed up with harassment. A little clarity helps us to understand what the real underlying problem is.
Bullying is defined as a pattern of abusive conduct meant to belittle, humiliate, or intimidate a targeted individual (or individuals). It can show up as a general air of incivility and disrespect, or something more severe like insults or threats.
What Does Workplace Bullying Look Like?
Just as there are countless ways to be nice to coworkers, there are numerous ways for bullies to act out. Bullying covers a range of behaviors, some of which we can instantly recognize:
- Rudeness (for example, eye rolls, sarcastic comments, and insults)
- Combativeness and uncooperativeness
- Spreading gossip
Some behaviors are less overt and harder to pinpoint or prove:
- Lack of common courtesy (for example, “please” and “thank you”)
- Ignoring or “giving a cold shoulder”
- Taking credit for another’s work
- Social exclusion and cliques
Finally, some kinds of bullying are specific to the workplace. For example:
- Favoritism (by management)
- Reprimanding in front of peers (by management)
- Sabotaging someone’s work
- Lodging false complaints
Workplace Bullying vs. Harassment
Bullying and harassment are often thought of as the same thing. But the words mean different things. Bullying is the more general term for repeated, abusive conduct. Actions cross into the realm of harassment when the target is in a protected class.
This also highlights another difference between the two: While bullying may be against company policies, it is generally not illegal. When the target is one or more people in a protected class, however, the laws are more specific. True, state laws do vary, but in most parts of the U.S. there are laws against workplace harassment due to sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability, or age.
“But It’s Just Banter!”
I’ve sometimes heard folks ask if something counted as workplace bullying or banter. Many employees can handle some teasing from their co-workers—in fact, it becomes a way to bond. In these cases, a little light-hearted banter can make the workplace a little more fun and less “sterile.”
But do the people who complain that they can’t even banter in today’s politically correct environment have a point? I don’t think so. Banter only works when there is already a high level of trust, comfort, and mutual respect among the parties. And it has to be a mutual thing. If the teasing appears to go in just one direction, or if it is making one of the parties noticeably uncomfortable, it is clearly a case of bullying.
You should also assume that, if you can’t tell whether something is workplace bullying or banter, err on the side of caution. Treat it as if it’s bullying.
Even if the teasing is well intended, the comments made might still be inappropriate. There are plenty of ways to bond and be humorous without making fun of someone’s race, gender, or physical features (to take just a few examples).
Results of Bullying
According to a study conducted by the EEOC, approximately 70% of bullying and harassment incidents are never reported. Bullies have an uncanny ability to recognize targets who are unlikely to fight back or retaliate. The victim may feel helpless to change the situation and remain silent because of a bully’s intimidation tactics. Or he or she might remain silent due to the perception that going to management or Human Resources will be futile. Whatever the reason, ongoing bullying will start to affect the workplace in detrimental ways.
Feeling trapped in the situation might result in a target’s tardiness or frequent absences. Their work product can suffer. When the pressure becomes too great, they will simply begin to search for another job. A company could lose its best and brightest employees as casualties to incivility in the workplace.
If a bullied employee does retaliate, it can be equally destructive to the working environment. A new set of problems can surface, ranging from passive/aggressive behavior all the way to outright violence.
Bad morale, low productivity, and high turnover can not only turn a company into an unpleasant place to work, but will ultimately affect the bottom line.
Prime Targets for Bullies
Control is at the heart of workplace bullying. Bullies will usually “pick on” people who are non-confrontational, introverted, or quiet, in the belief that they will not fight back or report them. Their bullying crosses the line into harassment when it involves traits like race, sex, or other inherent factors that make the bully feel superior. But the target could also be someone who is perceived as a threat to the power the bully is hoping to gain or maintain in their job.
- Model employees. Those who do a good job can be seen as competition.
- Team players. Teamwork goes against a bully’s need for control.
- Popular employees. Friendships or social status can be a source of jealousy for a bully.
- Whistleblowers. Bullies see those who report wrongdoing as tattletales or snitches.
- Employees who are different. An individual’s “other-ness” could be a target.
- Women. Bullying is “equal opportunity,” but women are bullied more than men—by both male and female bullies.
5 Steps to Stop Workplace Bullying
There is a reason why some businesses are known as great places to work. They have no doubt managed to establish a corporate culture of respect and civility. When civility is the norm, potential bullies will know that abusive behavior will not be tolerated. And managers, bystanders, and potential victims will be better equipped to deal with inappropriate actions, should they occur. How is this accomplished?
Define and communicate expectations.
Companies must put in place crystal-clear policies on how they expect employees to behave toward one another and the consequences of bad behavior. If a bully cannot or will not change their actions, they need to know there is no place for them in your company. Most importantly, the consequences must be followed through on consistently.
Understand unconscious bias.
A lot of bullying and harassment behavior stems from unconscious bias. Being aware of how unconscious bias about gender, skin color, age, height, etc. influences our actions can be the first step toward a more harmonious workplace. We have courses that can help employees understand and confront those unconscious biases.
Explain your commitment to diversity.
For some, working on unconscious biases are enough. But some employees might not understand why or how an organization benefits from people of different racial, religious, or ethnic backgrounds, or of different genders. Management needs to explain the value and demonstrate the commitment in their actions. Offering training courses on diversity can help illustrate the company’s dedication to diversity.
Encourage an atmosphere of civility.
Behaviors, both good and bad, trickle down through an organization. Upper management needs to set an example by modeling civil behavior. When those in powerful positions say “please” and “thank you,” listen, refrain from playing favorites, and show common courtesy, it goes a long way in telling employees “this is how we do things here.” Our new courses on civility in the workplace can help both managers and employees learn better ways to show common courtesy through their speech and behavior.
Stop bullying as soon as it is detected.
Managers and human resources professionals must be observant. So must employees. If people know the behavioral cues to watch out for, they can stop most bullying before it becomes an issue. Training employees and managers on the warning signs along with bystander training can make a difference.
As a leader, you need to decide what kind of company do you want to be? Bullies can harm your internal environment and your external reputation. Training can make all the difference between a healthy corporate culture where all employees can feel free to be themselves, and a toxic one where they are afraid, feel alone, and don’t know what’s coming next from the bully.
- Bullying is a topic covered in our Workplace Compliance library of training videos. You can view a full list here.
- If you agree with going beyond what is legally required, you will enjoy our white paper “Why Compliance Training is More Than a Checkbox."
- Bullying is not an easy thing to talk about. Our blog may help. "Training to Help Your Employees Have Difficult Conversations at Work."
- Sign up for a free trial of our HSI LMS and you will have access to our full Business Skills and Workplace Compliance libraries.