How to handle a workplace bully

Photo courtesy of Pixabay and user ashishjjn

Photo courtesy of Pixabay and user ashishjjn

Bullying affects many more people than just the one being targeted for abuse. Even when a boss singles out only one employee as the office scapegoat, the entire team’s productivity suffers, according to a recent finding by Michigan State University researchers. The controlled study, led by Crystal Farh, involved both verbal and email abuse; the investigators found that not only did the affected employee’s work plummet as a result of workplace harassment, but team members who witnessed it or became aware of the bullying “descended into conflicts” and so they, too, became less productive.

In a related study, VitalSmarts researchers David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny discovered bullying is rampant in the U.S. workplace today. In fact, 96 percent of respondents to VitalSmart’s survey reported that they had personally been bullied at work, with most of the complaints (75 percent) attributed to emotional (rather than physical) abuse. Maxfield noted that abusers tend to get away with their bad behavior for years, especially if they hold senior management titles. The cost to the company, Maxfield concludes, is nearly $9,000 per year per victim – and he has found that most abusive managers, on average, have five or more people they like to push around or humiliate, so this is now a significant business expense.

The idea of “pushing” people to do better, rather than motivating them through positive feedback or incentives, is counterproductive. Even when we restrict the definition of office bullying to “verbal abuse, threatening behavior, intimidation, or humiliation that lasts for several months or more,” researchers have found that this behavior is four times more prevalent than other forms of workplace harassment. Whether the perpetrator is a screamer, a constant critic, a passive-aggressive person who relies on back-door gossip to undermine others, or the one who controls access to important contacts or workplace resources, they can quickly and effectively crush morale and productivity.

What to do?

Whether you are a victim of bullying or a witness to it in the workplace, you have options. You can quit or you can become a whistleblower – or you can model adult behavior and try, by your example, to help another person mature. Most practical is deciding how you want to be spoken to in a professional environment and working toward establishing a respectful relationship with colleagues and supervisors.

When someone oversteps your personal tolerance boundary, first do a quick reality check. Were other witnesses also feeling the person was out of line? If so, try to identify an underlying trigger, the actual disappointment, incompetence or carelessness behind the behavioral explosion. Honoring someone’s feelings is important, especially if you are about to question their response: “I realize that our team didn’t reach our target goal, and that’s both disappointing and unacceptable, but can we now have a more respectful conversation about how best to get our team back on track?”

If the bullying is habitual rather than a one-time blowup, your best option may be to initiate a formal complaint process. Describe the person’s “bad attitude” or “bullying” in clear behavioral terms (he/she shouted, kicked a chair, etc.). Don’t engage others in office gossip about the problem; instead, provide a list of dates and witnesses and leave it to human resources to intervene or investigate.

If every reasonable attempt to deal with a bully fails, the bottom line is that when there are no heroes to save you, it falls on you to save yourself. If the situation is toxic, and you’re truly helpless to change it, maybe it’s time to float a resume. Life is too short to stay where you are tolerated when you might go where you are celebrated.

Does this help? Have you ever encountered a bully or witnessed bullying? Let us know in the comments section below or reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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7 Responses to How to handle a workplace bully

  1. Kim October 10, 2014 at 12:32 am #

    Nice suggestions, quit or become a whistleblower.

  2. jvcjr October 20, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    I worked for a decade in a company where verbal abuse was rampant and I bore the brunt of it among my peers. I had one abusive boss after another and the reason why it did not stop was that they were acting under orders of higher ups. There was no use complaining, because this was probably a tactic to keep salaries low by sacking people who had climbed in the pay scale.

    • Sara G. December 17, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

      What really stinks is that if this person is a jerk to everyone, it’s not harassment from a legal standpoint.

    • EternalVayu November 5, 2016 at 10:27 pm #

      interesting. It’s possible abuse and bullying everywhere is about jealousy and competition.

  3. Barclay Pollak October 24, 2014 at 7:22 am #

    @jvcjr I hope you got away from that company. Sounds terrible.

  4. jen February 26, 2016 at 10:49 pm #

    my problem is I have a coworker that is a spy for the boss and they are trying to find fault in everything and she runs to the office with any little thing I do to tell her what I have done for example I put my cart away in the store room 2 min short of the time when I went to empty my things and restock my cart as I left my cart she called the boss on the walkie talkie to come to store room to see the cart was there 2 min before the time and the boss then asked me why it was in the room 2 min early petty shit like this I have to deal with and these two all the time and I sit in staff room and not talk because of her also I’m a very shy person and afraid she will embarrass me somehow so I rather stay silent and read , I’m always being watched and I have been wrote up several times because of my boss and this coworker finding faults then have to walk around on eggshells most of the time the only time I feel free and normal at work is when the coworker isn’t there its a great day when that happens I don’t know how I should deal with this I find myself so stressed and angry most of the time as I write this I’m sitting here crying talking about this ive been through so much working with them but I wont leave my job because of them and give them the satisfaction of it so that is out of the question I was thinking of going to the union about this but we cant do anything about another coworker and going to the union about the boss alone will just make things worse for me with the coworker then really following every move then so any suggestions would be great of what I can do thanks

  5. Dee October 6, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

    Leave ASAP. Union will not help you!

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