No matter what kids’ show you grew up with, bullies are almost universally represented as maladapted kids from troubled homes who can’t show vulnerability and instead go around waging power struggles to make themselves feel less afraid in the world. Workplace bullies aren’t like that. Or rather, a lot of workplace bullies aren’t like that. If they come up and steal your lunch money and threaten to beat you up in the parking lot, you may be dealing with a garden-variety bully. But as I’ve discovered with hundreds of employee situations, workplace bullies often have no idea they’re perceived as bullies.
Workplace bullies might interrupt and shout over you in meetings, write terse and directive emails and point fingers of blame when there’s a problem. Frequently, such people really just think they’re being assertive and direct. Everyone else says “That person is such a jerk.” They just think they’re getting things done.
The High Cost of Bullies
As a leader, you may realize that this person isn’t “So bad” or “Their bark is worse than their bite” and they do good work. But you don’t know how many employees are going out to lunch with each other or going home at night saying “I have to quit. I can’t handle the stress of working with that person.” They may also be asking themselves,“Why does the boss let this person stay and act like this?”
All these thoughts contribute to deterioration of your culture. If it becomes known that your organization is one that hires and tolerates bullies, anybody who just wants to do good work in a good environment is going to steer clear. Bullies who got fired from places that don’t put up with them, meanwhile, might be drawn to your place. Bullies can damage your organizational morale, hamper your ability to attract and keep good people, and cause undo time and resources to be devoted to turnover. But beyond that, think of the time lost in dealing with a bully. How much time is devoted to avoiding interacting with the bully, venting about the bully, recovering after an interaction with the bully or “plotting revenge” on the bully? This is not good for the bottom line.
How to Deal with a Bully
You have to deal with this. So how? You might begin with the assumption that this person is not a bully on purpose. Perhaps they forgot the lessons learned in kindergarten. Remember those? In that case, you’ll need to collect examples of their bullying behavior to help them see what the issue is. If it doesn’t work out, these examples will be helpful in letting the person go. But for starters, you have a meeting with the person and say “Hey, I don’t know if you’re aware of this but you’re creating some discomfort by the way you communicate with other employees.” And then you share your examples.
If the person is angry and defensive, they may need a day to think about it. If they’re still angry and defensive tomorrow, you may be dealing with someone who isn’t going to change.
If, however, the person is shocked—which is more often my experience—they will need some time to process what you’ve told them. Then you talk about the examples and how they might have handled those situations differently. Then you determine how much time you’re going to give the person to adjust their behavior and bring it in line with your expectations for considerate and professional communication. And be aware that their next line of defense might be passive aggressive behavior…which is almost worse.
How Employees Should Deal with Bullies
The second part of the equation is that the folks in your organization need to feel confident enough to know how to stand up to bullying in a very direct way. Let’s say the bully talks over someone argumentatively in a meeting. Your employees need to be taught or encouraged to say “Excuse me, we all listened when you talked. Now you’re not letting us talk. It’s time to listen while we share our opinions.”
You need to set communication and behavior boundaries that everyone understands…including the bully. Like, say you are sorry when you hurt someone.
Not everybody is going to be comfortable with this process. It can be difficult to confront anyone, particularly those who don’t communicate well. But the cost to your organization if you don’t is just too high. And if you’d like help, well, we’ve done this plenty.
We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.