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Time Out for the Workplace Bully: Part I

Time Out for the Workplace Bully: Part I

In grade school I remember there was a boy that caused every kid to tremble on the playground. He would shove kids off the slides and ruin the swing-set experience at a whim. There are times it seems like we never left the playground in grade school. Bullies existed then as a child, and now as adults in the workplace. It is sad that people feel inclined to treat others with no respect but it is a fact of life. The question is how do you handle bullies in the workplace?

Let’s first refresh our memory from the days of the playground on what are bullying type behaviors. A bully is someone who asserts persistent unwelcome behavior. The type of behavior includes one or more of the following behaviors:

  • Unwarranted criticism,
  • Singling out people,
  • Shouting,
  • Humiliating people publicly or privately,
  • Excessive monitoring of individual(s)

In addition, bullying type behaviors can also come in the forms of passive-aggressive activities such as refusing to provide needed information, not including specific individuals in necessary meetings or communications, going above or around specific people and complain about them. There is no doubt that dealing with the behavior in the workplace is annoying. But employers may want to pay attention and address it before it gets out of hand.

While being a jerk is not illegal, harassment is unlawful. Bullying unchecked could be the underlying driver for harassment, hostile work environment, and/or discrimination. The penalties for such claims could be quite steep for a workplace struggling in this economy. According to a poll conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) over 60% of the respondents said they are currently experiencing workplace bullying. Over 25% of the respondents said that the bullying got worse after the start of the economic crisis. Long term unchecked bullying can negatively impact employee engagement, productivity and ultimately impact customer satisfaction and profits. In this economy who can afford that outcome?

Here are tips in how to handle bullies as a leader:

Provide a safe venue for unprofessional conduct reporting. A good place to start is to provide more than one safe way for employees to legitimately express concerns. Review and audit your communication avenues to ensure there is a bottom-up communication path. A savvy HR professional knows to be wary of the manager who insists that they are the only path for employees to express concerns.     

Wade through the emotion and find facts. If you are receiving what seems like surprising complaints about someone’s behavior, investigate in good faith to find out if there is truth in the complaint. Another dimension is when a bully may wish to push someone of the workplace slide. They may approach you with one-sided complaints that are vague on detail.  Fact finding is always a good technique for wading through emotion and lack of detail. Often when facts are discovered a solution to resolving the issue becomes apparent.

Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. Directly address the behavior before it gets out of hand. Confront the employee about their bullying behavior. Explain that bullying behavior could derail their success in the company. Hold them accountable for appropriate professional behaviors.   

You are not alone. Partner with human resources, co-supervisors, or boss and document the discussion. If you feel the situation is out of hand, check in with legal counsel and craft a plan to solve the issue.

Deliberately hire right. Have you ever hired what you thought was the perfect candidate just to watch them transform into a workplace nightmare? Be sure to carefully screen and thoroughly interview candidates. Try to get a good understanding on how someone works with others in the workplace before hiring them. There are a number of techniques you can use to fully vet out candidates. Go ahead. Save everyone’s sanity. It is worth the time and effort in the long run.

We are not pretending this is an easy task and not for the faint of heart. However, saving sanity, productivity and talent will be what makes the day when all is said and done.

What are your experiences in dealing with a workplace bully?

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Tresha D. Moreland, MBA, MS, FACHE, SPHR, SSBBP, founder of HR C-Suite, is an HR thought leader in Human Resource Strategic Management. She has held key human resource leadership roles for over 20 years in multiple industries most recently a senior vice president in the healthcare industry. Tresha is the founder and publisher of HR C-Suite ( HR C-Suite is a game changer results-based HR strategy website. It is a first-of-it's-kind site that organizes HR strategy based on desired business result. She has developed a business philosophy of integrating human resources with business strategy, thus creating a hybrid HR leadership approach. This approach enables the leveraging human resources to achieve business results.

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One Comment

  1. A reminder: Bullies often attempt to pass off their behavior as “humor.” When you regularly hear an employee ask, “Jeez, can’t you take a joke?” you likely have a bully in action. This is not to say that humor is always or even frequently a weapon — used positively, it is one of the most effective tools for bringing employees together and improving morale. Bullies, however, use their sense of humor negatively, to single people out and harass them.


  1. Bullies in the Workplace | HR C-Suite - [...] Resource Management (SHRM) white paper reports that “one out of six individuals report being bullied at some time at…

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