According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:
• Threatening, humiliating or intimidating.
• Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.
• Verbal abuse.
And it is more common than many people think. In fact, recent research from WBI reveals that 19 percent of employees have suffered abusive conduct at work and another 19 percent have witnessed it. And while abuse in the office may be less physical in nature than that which takes place at home or on the schoolyard, the damage can be just as severe.
When an employee is bullied, it can lead to increased stress, a loss of confidence and reduced productivity, and potentially even their departure. More broadly, bullying creates a toxic culture – and could expose you to the risk of litigation if it escalates to harassment or constitutes discrimination.
So how do you know if one of your workers is a bully? Some bullies are blatant in their actions but most are not, making it tougher to identify their abuse. However, there are some common patterns among bullies, starting with their targets. Unlike child bullies who pick on the weak, in the workplace, the victim is most often someone who poses a threat, whether because of their skills, advancement track or other attributes that make the bully feel less powerful. To overcome this feeling, the bully will put down their victim to elevate themselves by engaging in activities such as:
• Spreading rumors or telling other workers to stop associating with an employee.
• Making belittling comments toward a colleague during meetings or other times in front of others.
• Yelling or using profanity when speaking to a co-worker.
• Sabotages another’s work.
Competition in the workplace is often behind bullying behavior, by pitting employees against each other for rewards or other forms of recognition. An individual with low self-esteem and who is driven by jealousy may bully to negatively affect their victim’s job performance or career. And if they do not suffer any consequences for their actions but are instead rewarded by promotions or other opportunities to get ahead, bullies are encouraged to continue because they know they can get away with it.
Organizational changes that promote a more collaborative, team environment where workers support one another can help, as can a system of incentives that focuses on more than just results and recognizes high performance in other ways. But for real, sustainable change, you need to address the culture head on.
Many targets remain silent about abusive conduct they experience. But to change the culture, you need to stop bullying in its tracks. Here are five steps you can take:
1. Develop and update workplace policies to address appropriate conduct.
2. Train managers and supervisors to identify bullying behavior.
3. Encourage victims to consult human resources and assure them that their reports will be treated confidentially.
4. Use the employee’s documentation of the behavior to talk with the bully.
5. Provide formal feedback to the tormenter, including the possibility of a discipline plan to address the conduct.
Karyn Rhodes is the vice president and director at Complete HR Solutions, a division of Complete Payroll Solutions, which has more than 10 locations throughout New England.