In my naiveté, I thought that in a time of company culture and corporate values on the wall, expensive employee swag and gift experiences, inspiring company manifestos and people’s teams whose job is solely to make employees happy, there cannot be workplace bullying anymore.
Well, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, (yes, this institute actually exists) more than 60 million working people in the United States are affected by bullying. That’s a ridiculous amount of people to handle so much pressure and negativity on a daily basis.
Moreover, workplace bullying (WB) has been considered by prior researchers as one of the primary issues for workers’ safety and health and as a key predictor of deteriorating health and well-being among employees because of its severe consequences. So yeah, it’s kind of key to address it if it happens in your company or worse, to you personally.
A princess above, a bully below
Bullies have a typical profile. Sometimes these bullies are extremely good performers, powerhouses who produce a lot and are very visible in the company communications channels.
Also, they are not bullies with everyone — they are very smart on who they can persecute and who they cannot. They usually target below or people that do not influence their area of development — think of peers, team members or subordinates. Rarely, if never, you will ever hear of a case of a subordinate bullying his boss.
So what can be perceived as bullying?
Well, it has many forms and sometimes, it can be very subtle, almost untraceable. One helpful way to identify bullying is to consider how someone external from the issue might view what’s happening. This can depend, at least partially, on the circumstances. But if most people would see a specific behaviour as unreasonable, it’s generally bullying.
Think of some of these examples:
- A little bit of mockery, almost a humiliating joke that just leaves you confused and hurt. This is verbal abuse.
- Some intimidating tactics like threats, social exclusion in the workplace, being left out of key meetings, invasions of privacy. This is a poisonous form of intimidation.
- Wrongful blame, work sabotage or stealing or taking credit for ideas. This is the old fashioned back-stabbing.
- And we get to the serious one: Institutional bullying — this happens when a workplace accepts, allows, and even encourages bullying to take place. From closing your eyes when you receive official complaints, to a culture of setting unrealistic goals, forced overtimes or singling out those who can’t keep up.
Unfortunately, there is no law against some of these Cruella Deville or Jokers in the workplace. In fact, it’s one of the few places left where as long as you don’t cross your boss’s lines, you are actually allowed to be a bully. Should you be? Of course NOT. But can you be? SURE.
Moreover, if HR knows about the bullying and lets it happen, it’s like a corrupt police force, there is no safe net left.
What does it say about the bully?
Rough childhood? Tough life and they always needed to get their point across violently? Fear of not being good enough? Fear of losing work tapping into their fear of insignificance? “Children who experience social rejection themselves are more likely to pass it on to others. Children who experience academic failure are also more likely to bully others.”
According to the Bullying Statistics, some research also indicates that the very fact of having power may make some people wish to wield it in a noticeable way, but it is also true that people may be given power without being trained in the leadership skills that will help them wield it wisely. Either situation can contribute to why people bully others.
Maybe it’s all the situations of the above, maybe none. But what we, as an organisation, cannot do is let them pour their pain and suffering on other people.
What would I recommend for the person being bullied? If the bully isn’t technically breaking any rules, how does one report what’s happening without sounding like a whiner? Who should they report then?
My advice to the person being bullied
No-one has the right to take away your livelihood and happiness. Look at how you sleep and look at your thoughts. If they are always clouded and heavy with fear, this is clearly affecting you more than you realise.
- Track all the bullying in as much details as possible. Gather your evidence well — date, the time, where the bullying took place, and other people who were in the (virtual) room.
- Save any physical evidence. — emails, comments, even if they’re unsigned.
- Take control back. Decide to manage it. Do not leave it to HR. Do not leave it to Management. Decide for your self what the extreme scenarios will be and accept both consequences: either they move into another department, they go or I go.
- Report it. If your manager is the one bullying then go talk to his boss, or one level higher. If more peers are bullied, make an alliance and go talk to the boss the case of the many may help. Think of a trial, the more evidence you bring, the more testimonies you have the higher the chance for something to be done.
- Seek professional advice. You have been weakened by this situation. Let a professional support you and guide you. Seek professional advice, talk to a lawyer or a coach- see if you need to get the professional involved even in the HR process. This professional, especially not bias to the situation can help you see things clearly and help you decide the best next move forward.
My advice to the company tolerating it
If you have values like integrity, appreciation, “we are one team” on your walls just remove them. Because you do not yet live up to them. By hiring each and every one of your employees, you have made a promise to offer a good workplace in which everyone has room to do good work.
If you want to see ROI on tackling bullying, according to the latest research, a positive workplace culture has been shown to reduce absenteeism, improve employee wellbeing, performance and retention, which ultimately results in reduce costs.
- Identify ALL the bullies. How? As Simon Sinek would say, just ask who’s the a****** in a team and usually all point to one.
- Get them into a rehabilitation program. So, once identified, you need to clearly explain the accusations that have been brought to them and ask for their narrative. Listen carefully, usually the bullying side effects are there, in that confession speech.
Clearly explain the disapproval of this behaviour by the company and the fact they now “on the bench” — he is not to contact any of his victims and seize any projects for the time being. Explain the next steps suggested by the company. Let’s start with getting these bullies into a private coaching program that helps them define the case but also help them manage the behaviour going forward.
- If there is no progress or new incidents occur, fire them. The bully is not the victim here, do not forget. And the longer bullying is allowed to continue, the harder it will be to get it stopped.