There are bullies in your workplace. We don’t know their names. We don’t know what they look like. But they’re almost certainly there, and you need to help your front-line leaders manage bullies.
How do we know all this?
About 60% of employees say bullying goes on at work – 20% have been the target and 20% witness it firsthand. The rest just know it happens, the Workplace Bullying Institute found. Very few workplaces have escaped bullying.
The problem is most employees don’t do anything to stop the humiliation, intimidation, threats, sabotage and verbal abuse that constitute bullying.
Many managers and supervisors don’t witness it, and if they did, might not know what to do about it. That’s where HR comes in.
Show them the difference
First, managers and supervisors need to know the difference between bullying and harassment.
Explain to your front-line leaders that bullying and harassment are similar because both are severe or pervasive behavior that creates a bad work environment.
Bullying can happen to anyone for any reason and isn’t illegal, though. Harassment crosses the legal line because the victim is targeted for protected characteristics such as gender, race or age.
Remind them: Both are bad, but harassment must be brought to you or other HR leaders’ attention immediately.
4 kinds of bullies
Bullies come in all forms. These are the most common lineup – the crew front-line leaders need to keep an eye or ear out for:
- The Critic. He disparages victims often – sometimes publicly, but more often privately in meetings or through email or text – until victims question their abilities and start to perform worse.
- The Aggressor. She yells and intimidates. Others avoid her so they aren’t the next victim.
- The Gatekeeper. He excludes people and withholds information to prevent victims from doing their jobs.
- The Back-stabber. She’s nice to victims’ faces and undermines, sabotages or talks badly behind their backs.
5 keys to dealing with bullies
Whether leaders witness, hear about or suspect bullying, they need to stop it. Here’s how front-liners can manage bullies:
Put it in writing. Show and remind front-line managers your clear anti-bullying policy. It should define bullying with examples, how to confidentially report it and punishment for violations. If you don’t have one, you’ll want to create it now.
Train employees on civility. Yes, managers need to remind them how to be kind, considerate and conscientious of each other – and how to intervene when they witness bullying. This helps create a collective sense of responsibility to eliminate bullying, the Society for Human Resource Management suggests.
Address it – as it happens, preferably. Managers will want to give the facts of what’s happened in the moment (and avoid bringing up past incidents or using absolutes such as “always”). They need to appeal to the bully’s values: Explain why it’s a problem. Point out the negative feelings others might face. And ask the bully how he or she will change.
Say something like this: “Jim, you’ve yelled at Gina, unfairly criticizing her work. I know you care about the quality of the work we do here, but when you lash out it undermines everyone’s efforts. I’m upset about this situation, and I sense others are frustrated and possibly embarrassed. I need you to stop yelling and belittling Gina and all of your co-workers. What will you do for that to happen going forward?”
Investigate immediately. Remind front-line managers that if they don’t witness the bullying, and instead hear about it, look into it right away – no matter how minor it seems. They’ll want to work with HR, document what they find and punish bullies under your policy guidelines.
Support victims, who often end up leaving or losing their jobs. Managers will want to direct them to the support you provide. Plus you’ll need to keep them updated on progress and regularly follow-up to be sure they’re getting any help they need.