As we wrote in our post 4 Types of Workplace Bullies and How to Deal With Them, not all bullies are the stereotypical demanding-boss-type.
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. They can be supervisors, or they can be peers. They can bully by yelling and intimidation, or they can do it by withholding important information or spreading rumors.
Regardless of the type of bullying behavior or who is responsible for it, bullying behavior at work should be addressed immediately.
Workplace bullying won’t necessarily land your office in legal trouble — unless the bullying constitutes harassment or discrimination, or creates a hostile work environment for a protected class. However, state-by-state efforts are underway to make bullying illegal. And more importantly, bullying behavior doesn’t have to be illegal in order to do serious damage to your organization.
Beyond the obvious psychological harm it causes to victims, it impacts your bottom line in the form of high turnover rates, dampened recruiting efforts, and poor employee productivity.
Plus, the presence of bullying behavior is usually a sign that other milder but still damaging forms of bad behavior such as rudeness are also thriving in your workplace.
Here are the important steps to take when dealing with a workplace bully.
1. Address the Behavior Immediately
Most employees don’t speak up about small problems for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’re generally conflict-avoidant, fear that speaking up will backfire, or simply don’t know how to address the issue appropriately in the moment. It’s often much easier to just stay quiet and hope the behavior will go away on its own, especially if the bullying is coming from someone who has power over your career.
However, the behavior rarely does go away on its own. In fact, the worst workplace behavior, such as sexual harassment or abuse, almost always starts with the abuser testing the boundaries with milder bad behaviors.
That’s why it’s so important to address even mild versions of bullying behavior as soon as they happen. It’s ideal if managers or peers of the employee exhibiting bullying behavior can call out the behavior in the moment when they encounter behavior that aims to demean, humiliate, or threaten other employees.
To call out this behavior, employees can start with a non-judgmental observation of the bullying behavior (I can hear that you’re yelling), and combine it with a guess at the motivation behind the behavior (I know you’re passionate about this project). Then, they can explain why the behavior conflicts with the organization’s core goals and values (We need to hear everyone’s feedback in order to create the best possible product, and yelling discourages those contributions.)
Effective workplace civility training should give both managers and employees a chance to practice in how to respond in the moment to these kinds of scenarios so that they can handle similar situations more appropriately when the time comes.
However, even if you miss calling out bullying behavior as it’s happening, you can still pull the employee at fault aside after the incident to discuss it. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable complaining to the employee directly, you may be able to make a complaint to HR or even make one anonymously with the help of an employee tip line.
Again, it’s the responsibility of leaders at the organization to make sure that employees have plenty of outlets for reporting the behavior so it’s handled appropriately.
2. Document the Bullying Behavior
Any HR or legal pro will tell you that documentation is crucial anytime you want to address or act on employee behavior.
If you’re being bullied as an employee, documentation will help you make a solid case to HR, which is much more helpful than coming to them with vague complaints or feelings. And if you’re a manager who wants to make sure that the bullying behavior doesn’t continue, a solid written record of the bad behavior can help provide the legal grounds to dismiss an employee with good cause if the behavior continues over time.
When bullying behavior is witnessed, targets or other employees should keep a record of:
- exactly what happened, including when and where
- who was involved
- who else may have seen the incident
- any other details or facts that are relevant to the situation
The more detailed the records are, the more helpful they can be. Records are also helpful when it comes to documenting employee performance in light of bullying claims.
For example, a bullying supervisor might claim that their reprimands or poor treatment were in response to bad behavior on the part of their employee. If you hope to counteract those claims, you should have as much written evidence as possible that your performance has been satisfactory, or at least on par with your colleagues.
3. Give Employees Tools and Plans to Improve
Changing human behavior is difficult in any instance, no matter who is involved or what the behavior is. And telling employees that they need to change their behavior won’t be helpful if they aren’t also given proper guidance and tools to improve.
Once again, this is where quality civility training and coaching can play a key role. All employees, not just the people directly involved in bullying behaviors, can benefit from practicing how to react to and report things like rudeness, belittling, insults, rumor spreading, and intentional exclusion in the workplace.
Civility training specifically for managers should also teach them how to respond to such complaints. This includes active listening and responding to reports of bad behavior, but also making plans to improve the situation.
For example, managers sometimes make scheduling changes or rearrange responsibilities to keep two employees from working together after a complaint. However, these kinds of actions can be construed as retaliation against the employee who reported the bullying.
Regardless of the role each employee plays, it should be made clear that if behavior doesn’t eventually align to employer standards, employment will be terminated.
Prioritizing Civility in the Workplace
The key to eliminating bullying along with the rest of the more subtle (yet still damaging) types of bad behavior at work is to make civility a central cultural value. If it’s not a priority in your office culture right now, it might take time to get it there.
It starts with education and awareness of just how damaging these issues are to the organization’s mission. It continues with meaningful exercises and a chance to practice better behavior. It will require building systems and processes that encourage good behavior to thrive.
And it absolutely requires buy-in from organizational leadership.
If you’re concerned about bullying in your workplace — or about behavior that could pave the way for bullying — please reach out to us at ELI. We would be happy to discuss how we can partner with you to find a civility training solution that fits your unique needs and budget.