Workplace Bullies – Do you keep them or let them go?

March 6, 2012 Carlo Bos

Workplace Bullies – Do you keep them or let them go?

By Carlo Bos, Senior Consultant, Knightsbridge’s Leadership Solutions Practice

You’re told you’ve got a bully in your office. Reports have been coming in fast and furious from employees complaining about being insulted, threatened, and even degraded by a manager. Morale is suffering, along with productivity. The manager has been cautioned, encouraged, and warned to change his behavior, but the bullying behaviour has continued. What are you going to do now?

There was a time when the office bully was merely tolerated, or the behavior was rationalized as a cruel but necessary management style; however, in recent years bullying has become a hot topic of conversation in the workplace and a top-of-mind concern for employers, many of whom are no longer willing to turn a blind eye.

The U.S.-based Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming, abusive conduct committed by bosses and co-workers.” A survey conducted by the WBI in 2010 found that 35 per cent of American adults had experienced bullying first-hand. Another 15 per cent of respondents said they had witnessed a co-worker being bullied. These results confirm that, especially in larger organizations, you can bet there are bullies in your midst. And that means you need a game plan to nip bullying in the bud.

Nip bullying in the bud

Certainly, regular 360-degree reviews, “skip-level” meetings (where employees meet with their boss’s boss), and other performance measurement tools are good opportunities to pick up on and address behavior that might be viewed as bullying. Often there are early indicators in these reviews that can reveal an emerging bully in your midst. Comments about managers who are poor communicators (e.g. overly forceful), consistently put results ahead of people, or delegate poorly (e.g. last minute) may be early indicators of behaviour experienced by some as bullying. Be proactive and pay close attention to subordinates who complain of unreasonable demands, consequences that seem out of step with shortcomings, and any behavior that would be considered degrading or dehumanizing. Also take note of managers who, when confronted by concerns about their behavior, display anger or show a staunch reluctance to consider the perspective others may have of their actions and the impact.

It’s important to realize as well that in this day and age of globalization and more diverse workforces, cultural background can play a role. Managers or employees from different cultures may have radically different views of what constitutes acceptable behavior and can be at a loss when they are told that a certain style of leadership is unacceptable.

Do bullies deserve a second chance?

 A big question that remains is; do bullies deserve a chance?  And the answer is that a number of factors need to be considered.  For example, what is the severity of the bullying and the impact on those affected?  What does it say about the organization’s leadership, culture and brand if the bully is allowed to stay even with support to change?  How long has the bullying been occurring and what is the cost to individuals, the team, and the organization of keeping them?  And finally, in order for change to occur, is the bully open and willing to invest in adopting new behaviours?

First off, measuring and confirming bullying behaviour is a very sensitive exercise.  However, if after close consideration by the right individuals it is clear that behaviour has resulted in degradation or dehumanization, organizations must take deliberate action to resolve the situation through the necessary protocols, including the prospect of terminating the bully.

If there is any chance of rehabilitating an office bully, it has to start with a moment of frank realization. In some situations (e.g. cultural differences) it is possible that a manager is underestimating the true impact of their behaviour on others. Sometimes, managers are asked to get results from their teams and are told in no uncertain terms to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Often, this can manifest in bullying. Close and careful work to help an individual recognize the clear hallmarks of bully behavior, along with a concerted effort to change that behavior, can pull a bully back from the brink of career destruction.

Along with the work done with the bully, it is very important to gauge the depth of the damage this person has done to the organization. Going to great lengths to rehabilitate a bully, can take a measurable toll on an organization. It can shake employee engagement, erode morale, and destroy productivity. And if an executive team is seen as more interested in protecting a bully than protecting the people being bullied, it can undermine the entire culture of an organization ─ and make it very hard to retain or recruit top talent.

Reforming a bully can take many months of intense coaching so an organization will have to weigh that time and cost with the general benefits of showing them the door. In some instances, termination is the best decision for everyone, and it is not unusual to experience a broad and deep sense of relief once that bully has been removed from the situation.

Although this is a complex problem to confront, you can start to eliminate bullying behavior from your organization by asking yourself three important questions:

Detection: Is it bullying? Remain vigilant and look for the early signs of bully behavior. Use 360-degree reviews and other performance oversight to determine whether you’re dealing with a forceful personality or a bona fide bully.

Measuring the impact: Is the damage already done? Even in cases where a bully may show a willingness to change, if detection was not early enough, the damage from the bullying may be too severe to justify keeping a reformed bully in your fold.

Realization: Is the person willing to change? In cases where there has been early detection, an intervention with the individual is essential. Help the bully to see the error of his or her ways and gauge the level of commitment this individual may have to changing their behavior.

Contrary to some outdated management philosophies, bullying is not an ingredient for success. Research into this area clearly shows that tolerating a bully can undermine an organization’s entire business plan and culture and it can make an organization a last choice for top talent. Although every employee deserves compassion in dealing with interpersonal flaws, the awful truth is that long-practicing bullies may need to be shown the door.

About the Author

Carlo Bos

Carlo Bos is a Senior Associate Consultant with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions. Carlo works with executives and emerging leaders on enhancing their performance and potential as a leadership coach and assessment professional.

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