Small Business

Wrangling the Workplace Bully

Shelly K. Schwartz |Special to
Erik Dreyer | Stone | Getty Images

A manager calls an important meeting with no time to prepare, making  aco-worker appear incompetent. She ridicules him in front of his peers and jumps at the chance to criticize his work. She’s a bully. And she’s setting up a co-worker to fail.

For all the publicity surrounding schoolyard bullying, and the impact it can have on a child’s emotional well being, there’s precious little discourse about the equally pervasive problem of bullies in the workplace. Often, it's in the exit interview where employers get their first hint that something is wrong, since that’s the first time many feel emboldened enough to speak freely. At that point, it's often too late to save that employee, but it does give employers a chance to turn things around for the rest of their workforce.

Managers who seek to sabotage or humiliate their underlings are a challenge to any organization, but their impact is disproportionate for small businesses, which can ill afford the costly turnover associated with a toxic culture — much less the loss of staff buy-in so critical to an upstart’s survival.

“In a larger corporation, the bully only reaches a small proportion of people, but the effect is magnified in a small company because they touch everyone,” says Gary Namie, president of The Work Doctor in Bellingham, Wash., a consulting firm that helps companies develop anti-bullying policies.  “There’s no escape from them and when the target wants to asks for relief there’s no one to go to, so they are much more vulnerable.”

Workplace bullying is a bigger issue than most employers think.

A 2010 survey by Zogby International for the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of U.S. workers (an estimated 54 million Americans) have been bullied at some point in their career.

The survey, which notes bullying can occur between co-workers or between a boss and a subordinate, found that 62 percent of bullies were men and 58 percent of targets were women.

The majority (68 percent) of bullying is same-gender harassment, the survey found, noting women bullies target women 80 percent of the time.

“Bullying at work is a widespread problem,” says Joel Neuman, professor of management and organizational behavior at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “It’s not just physical aggression. More often than not it’s psychological or verbal aggression.”

Indeed, workplace bullying takes many forms.

According to Neuman, it is generally defined as any persistent form of aggressive behavior, particularly verbal abuse, which seeks to humiliate, undermine or ostracize another. 

Many bullies, for example, take credit for their target’s work, pepper them with trivial tasks, or criticize their performance in front of their peers, making the target appear incompetent.

The Workplace Bullying Institute notes that victims tend not to be the weakest member of the team, but the most veteran and competent person in the workgroup because they are viewed as a perceived threat.

“A very common bullying tactic is social isolation or marginalizing their target by withholding information they need, treating them as a social pariah, or excluding them from social events or work-related functions,” says Neuman.

Eventually, he notes, such behavior creates health problems.

According to the Zogby survey, 45 percent of those who have been bullied at work say they suffer stress-related health problems, including panic attacks, clinical depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress. And they use paid time off frequently for “mental health breaks,” creating a heightened burden for smaller companies that need all hands on deck.

For small business owners, the first step to ferreting out a bully in your office is to recognize the signs. Don’t be fooled, says Namie. Bullies are masters at “managing their impression upwards” and making themselves appear indispensible. 

If you notice that one or more of your employees has shifted from enthusiastic and confident to woeful and tentative, it’s time to intervene.

“In a small business, there is no excuse not watching your people closely and knowing their quirks and personalities; how they show loyalty and enthusiasm,” he says. “When a person is targeted by a bully, those things disappear. They start walking on eggshells. They hang their head. They look depressed and powerless.”

Call that employee into your office immediately, says Namie, and discuss candidly what you’ve observed. Ask what you can do to help.  

“Targets often feel ashamed so they won’t come out with it right away, but if you make it safe for them to share they will,” says Namie. “You have to do some investigating.”

Indeed, some 40 percent of bullied individuals never tell their employers about the problem, the Zogby survey found.

Part of that reason could be that employees are afraid of their bosses. Paul Hellman, founder of Express Potential, writes that bosses should not underestimate the fear they can instill in employees who are afraid to say the wrong thing. Hellman suggests that bosses can lessen fear by being upfront about what they are asking, and what they expect. And being open to what employees have to say, says Hellman.

If you are certain that a co-worker or manager is bullying someone on your team, separate them from their target right away, either by giving the target (not the bully) some paid time off or moving the target to a different group, says Namie.

“Put the bully to the wall and ask why they did what they did,” said Namie. “Don’t ask ‘if’.  Ask, too, how their conduct is related to the interest of the company and make them prove it’s connected to your mission of either profit or public service.”

If they can’t, follow through with disciplinary action — including a written warning, suspension or termination.

It's essential to have some kind of policy in place that defines acceptable and unacceptable conduct.
president, The Work Doctor
Gary Namie

Whatever you do, don’t tell the bully and target to work it out on their own.

“If they could have confronted the bully or defended themselves they would have done it already, so telling them to work it out is dooming the person in the one-down position,” says Namie, noting a boss and a subordinate are not on equal footing.  

To prevent bullying before it starts, it often helps to draft a code of professional conduct that spells out the kind of behavior you expect from your staff, as well as disciplinary procedures for failure to adhere, says Neuman.

“It’s essential to have some kind of policy in place that defines acceptable and unacceptable conduct,” he says.

For smaller businesses, with fewer resources, though, it can be just as effective to share your expectations with your troops verbally — and unequivocally.

“Declare that you’re not going to tolerate this behavior or put up with it for even a minute,” Namie says. “Tell them that if you see it they’re going to get fired. Whether codified in a policy for done more informally, there needs to be a line drawn in the sand.”

Though the body of research on workplace bullying in the U.S. remains small compared with that of Europe, which has studied the problem for decades, awareness is on the rise.

Over the last few years, in fact, 12 states have enacted legislation based on the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Business owners can put a stop to bullying in their own offices, and do their bottom line a favor, by learning what to look for and how to deal with it when they see it – up to and including sending the bully packing.

“The bully might even be your favorite employee but ultimately, they are just too expensive to keep,” says Namie.