How to spot and deal with workplace bullying


Bullies aren’t just found at the playground or in schools. They might be in your office, right under your nose.

Dealing with workplace bullying can be one of a manager’s most difficult tasks, yet it is one that no manager can afford to ignore. Allowing a bully to continue his or her reign of terror in the workplace can damage team cohesiveness and affect productivity.

Workplace bullying is more common than you think. According to a poll conducted by a few years ago, up to 55% of workers in Asia have experienced workplace bullying in some form. In fact, a recent paper by Audencia Nantes School of Management Professor Nikos Bozionelos states that white collar workers in “the Confucian Asia region” (Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) are exposed to even more incidents of workplace bullying than their counterparts in other countries.

Bullying isn’t your usual conflict-management scenario. It isn’t a personality clash or a communication breakdown. Workplace bullying can be specifically defined as the repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates a worker.

Contrary to popular opinion, those who are targeted for bullying aren’t usually the ‘loners and losers’, but are most often your most productive, skilled and popular team members. In fact, factors that increase the likelihood of being bullied include being over the age of 46, being an industry veteran and being recognised as a high-performing employee. This is because a bully might feel threatened by the individual’s competence and popularity, and might see bullying as a solution to assert themselves in the office hierarchy.

Perhaps the bully is jealous of their success and popularity, or afraid that their productivity makes the bully’s performance look bad. Often the targets are the people with a high degree of integrity, honesty and conscience who stand up for what is right, which may expose less than ideal practices by other staff.

So how do you spot a workplace bully?

Bullies can often be charismatic and tend to collect collaborators around them, just like in the schoolyard. Look for sudden ‘groupings’ in your team and individuals who seem to be excluded from social interactions. Also watch out for sudden drops in performance, engagement or attitude, as this is usually the first sign that someone is being bullied. Any marked change in team dynamics, particularly after a new employee has arrived, should be investigated immediately.

What can you do about it?

Don’t ignore employee complaints of workplace bullying: A company that ignores or fails to act on a complaint can potentially be sued for damages by a bullied employee. If there are signs or complaints, act immediately. Most bullying is subtle and secretive, so by the time bullying makes itself visible, you may have already lost good people and seen your team’s morale affected. A good manager is actively looking for bullying and intervening early to fix it. Keeping tabs on your team can help you deal with workplace bullying more effectively.

Have a policy and a process: Make sure there is a clear and transparent process that ensures that all complaints are investigated, that there is real action taken to protect the complainant (bullying will usually increase after a complaint is made) and that there are real consequences for the bully. Some bullies can be rehabilitated, but many have antisocial personality features that are hard to change. Either way, the person who has been bullied should not have to continue working with the person who has attacked them.

Understand the legalities of workplace bullying: Laws and regulations regarding workplace bullying differ from country to country, so do some research and find out what these laws are in the country you’re based in.

Create a bully-free culture: Make it clear that your workplace will not tolerate bullying, and outline what bullying is and what will happen to anyone who does it. Make sure there are guides accessible on your intranet and in your staff recreation areas.

There is an old schoolyard wisdom that you have to punch the bully in the nose to make him stop. Though you can’t do this in the workplace, if you get the slightest whiff of bullying in your team, step in fast and step in hard. Your team has the right to a safe workplace, and it’s your job to make that happen.

This article first appeared on the Worklife ANZ blog – “True leadership: How to spot and stop a workplace bully”.

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