Bullies at Work
Bullying behavior remains rampant online and in the workplace. U.S. surveys show that about 48.6 million workers, or roughly 30% of the workforce, are bullied at their jobs. State and federal laws only guard against physical abuse or come into play if the victim represents a protected class (race, age, color, disability, etc.).
Whether in your face or behind your back
Bullying at work manifests in a multitude of ways. Most witnesses know it when they see it, and the targets certainly do. It comes in guises that range from verbal or physical intimidation to attacks on work product, such as sabotage or stealing credit. Sometimes it arises from retaliation. The key characteristic of bullying is that it comes in the form of a repeated pattern rather than a one-off occurrence.
Hostile language and name-calling are overt forms of intimidation, but some of the cruelest behavior is surreptitious: Co-workers might be excluded from team lunches or group events, or personal items or work materials might go inexplicably missing again and again.
Managers who are bullies may take it out on their subordinates with harsh, excessive criticism or by enforcing overtime. Studies suggest management accounts for around 61% of bullying, versus 33% from fellow workers. A boss might withhold key work information, give unreasonable assignments, require seemingly pointless tasks, issue vague and contradictory instructions, or block a deserved promotion. Still, employees should not confuse every unwelcome order from above with bullying. Strict managers who set tough goals, give negative performance reviews, delegate or micromanage are not necessarily bullies.
The worm sometimes does turn. Underlings can bully their managers by showing disrespect, fanning rumors or stubbornly refusing to complete tasks. They can undermine discipline by interrupting or rolling their eyes, snickering or staring at their bosses.
Bullies generally exhibit identifiable traits. They are likely to lack empathy and may have few friends. Isolation leads to low self-esteem as well as an urge to exert power and control over vulnerable employees or co-workers. They themselves have often been bullied or undergone other trauma.
Interventions may be ineffective
What would you do if you witnessed a co-worker being humiliated or singled out? Would you take their side against insults, threats or demeaning comments? The sad reality is that, according to a 2022 study, bystanders in 88% of such incidents stood silently by.
Managers may do their best to control bullying on their watch, but that is not easy to accomplish. When employers do try to take action, their efforts often may not bear fruit. Companies may be able to increase awareness of both the signs and dangers of bullying, but they are not normally successful at preventing it.
Compounding the problem are the wide range of behaviors involved and the complex interpersonal nuances. A host of permutations can include anything from yelling out loud to practical jokes to usurping someone's office space. Some bullies might be mediocre performers who are taking credit for talented people's work. That behavior alone poses a challenge; it might involve a trail of sleuthing just to recognize it.
Another reason interventions may fail is if they are reactive, implemented only after the harm has been done. Normally, the burden of proof falls on the victim, who may feel trapped and unable to cope.
While bullying may be hard to recognize and prove, management must nevertheless take a stand. You do have some recourse. Encourage employees to document any incident, save any evidence and report it to supervisors and HR. Promote confidential communication and make it clear that bullies will be met with zero tolerance.
Establish step-by-step procedures and employee training, such as:
Conducting briefings on telltale signs of bullying.
Emphasizing the reporting responsibilities of witnesses.
Providing assertiveness/anger management training, although personality traits tend to be stable there is room for change.
Using grievance mechanisms, task boards and shared documents to encourage teamwork and collaboration.
Avoiding destructive internal competition.
When employees respond to bullying surveys, you must carefully calibrate the answers. Employees may duck sensitive questions out of fear of attracting attention.
Our Nuance Culture Consulting Team can help you implement anti-bullying policies.