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Bullying in the Workplace

This Advisor column was originally published in September 2005.

As part of our business, we spend a lot of time working with workgroups who are having difficulty functioning well together as a team. Oftentimes, one of the factors contributing to the dysfunctional team relationship is bullying behavior by one or more of the employees in the workgroup and/or by the supervisor. Regrettably, when we discuss the need to contain the bullying behavior there is often a great deal of resistance, either because of fear of the consequences of dealing with the behavior, or because of a misperception that bullying is simply a personality trait that cannot be controlled.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is the process of one individual knowingly inflicting fear in another. A leading expert in the subject, Sam Horn, defines the bully as "someone who knowingly abuses the rights of others to gain control of the situation and the indvidual(s) involved." The bully deliberately and persistently uses intimidation and manipulation to get his/her way. One key thing to know about the Bully is that the individual is aware of his/her behavior and that the behavior is deliberate and persistent.

Why Do We Need To Stop Bullying Behavior?

Bullying is a significant issue in today's workplaces. Because bullying is not in and of itself illegal, however, many employers are hesitant to take the issue on. They characterize the problematic behavior as a personality issue that cannot be controlled, and are too intimidated by the bully to address the issue. Rather than characterize bullying as a personality issue, employers need to recognize that bullying is a behavioral issue that has significant negative impacts on the workplace. Typical impacts include increased employee absenteeism, on-going stress and continual emotional upheaval within the workplace, an increase in the number of threats and/or incidents of violence, more safety violations and injury claims, a rise in the number of employee complaints and litigation, a lack of innovation, and finally, poor retention as employees seek transfers or quit without notice.

Legislative Trends with Respect to Bullying

Although for the most part the United States has been hesitant to make bullying behavior illegal, many European countries have taken a very strong stance against workplace bullying. Most European countries have laws that make bullying behavior illegal. Employees that violate those laws face a variety of consequences. Initially the bullying employee must attend mandatory training and counseling. If after training and counseling the employee continues the problematic behavior, the employee may be terminated.

As bullying becomes more problematic in this country, certain states have considered following a similar approach. For example, in 2005, both the Washington and Oregon legislatures considered bills that would have made bullying in the workplace illegal (SHB 1968). These bills, referred to as the "Healthy Workplace" bills, were similar to the laws prohibiting harassment in the workplace. Although the bills were not passed in either state, it is anticipated that they will resurface again in the near future.

Stopping the Bully

In order to address the bully's behavior, it is important to know: 1) why bullies typically behave the way they do; 2) how the bullying behavior is demonstrated; 3) the impact of the behavior on the workplace (discussed above); and 4) how to give feedback to the bully about his/her behavior.

In general, individuals that engage in bullying behavior do so because they:

  • Feel inferior and are compensating for low self-esteem
  • Experience no remorse or guilt for the bullying behavior
  • Want to instill fear in others and words are their weapon of choice
  • Feel justified in behaving the way they do because they are seldom challenged by those they are bullying
  • Are rewarded for their successful intimidation of others
  • Possess poor or inadequate interpersonal/communication skills

Bullies typically demonstrate the following behaviors:

  • Bullies often find fault with others as a means of keeping the attention or focus on the shortcomings of others rather than on their own shortcomings.
  • Bullies often take control of a conversation, project, or work assignment so they can bully others into doing what they want. The Bully sees his/her control of the project as a win, which he/she desperately needs to reinforce the sense of superiority.
  • Bullies frequently use demeaning and mean-spirited remarks to put down others. Such remarks are usually directed at people who won't fight back or resist, which again reinforces the Bully's sense of superiority.
  • Bullies are shamelessly self-promoting. Interesting enough, bullies almost always work in a group with others, because of course, the process of being a bully only works if there is a group. Rather paradoxical, but the bully needs the team in order for him/her to use his/her "bullying" behavior. Despite the need for a group setting, the Bully almost always speaks in terms of "I" versus "them."
  • Bullies often blame others. A common characteristic of a Bully is for him/her to refuse to accept responsibility for a mistake. Even when it is apparent he/she is responsible for the mistake, he/she finds it almost impossible to apologize.
  • Bullies tend to take sole credit for team success, while shifting blame for team failures to others on the team.
  • Bullies often hinder innovation on a team because they ridicule other employees who introduce new ideas that the bully is not in agreement with. For many of those employees, it is preferable to stay quiet rather than risk being embarrassed in front of their coworkers.

We acknowledge that taking on the bully can be an intimidating task for some supervisors and managers. Make your task easier by using the following format called "Having a Difficult Conversation" to describe the facts about the bully's behavior and its impact on you and/or the team. The components of "Having a Difficult Conversation" include: 1) stating the facts and/or describing the behavior; 2) describing the impact the behavior is having on you and/or others; 3) describing the needed change in the Bully's behavior; and 4) setting forth the consequences if the behavior does not change.

The conversation could go something like this:

When you interrupt others and try to take control of the conversation, the other members of the team no longer feel comfortable expressing their opinions. This results in team members no longer wanting to share their ideas with you. As part of this team, you will be provided an opportunity to have your views heard, but so will the others. I would like for your behavior to change, so I am willing to help guide you in a different direction when I see you interrupting others or dominating the team discussion. To help make this more comfortable for you, I have chosen a code word/phrase that I will use when I observe you interrupting others and/or dominating the conversation. For example: "Thanks Russ for you willingness to share your ideas, but to insure that everyone is heard, let's hear what Emily has to say about this issue."

Managers and supervisors may need to have this conversation more than once, and if the behavior does not improve, they will need to include potential disciplinary consequences if the behavior continues. Then, if the behavior does not improve, managers and supervisors must hold the individual accountable by following through with the stated consequences. As other employees see that the bully is no longer being allowed to freely engage in the behavior, they will gain more confidence in personally taking on the bully.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Janice Corbin and Janet May