Recognizing and Countering the Workplace Bully

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The ability to work productively in a positive company atmosphere is taken for granted by many individuals, leaders and employees alike, who strive to create a successful workplace.

However, the existence of workplace bullying and its subtle but pernicious version, mobbing, can threaten to destroy innovation, productivity and emotional well-being in the workplaces that fail to recognize and deal with it.

“Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose…effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform,” cites the Tim Field Foundation in a current definition. Mobbing may be treated by researchers of workplace conflict as synonymous with bullying, but generally the two words indicate different types of aggression. Bullying suggests a belligerent, hostile individual, whereas mobbing describes a group of individuals at any level who “gang up on” a peer, manager or subordinate and create a hostile environment in usually nonviolent ways.

Identify the behavior
Bullying actions may be overt or subtle. Dr. Harvey Hornstein notes that bullies generally fall into three categories. The Conqueror is interested in power, control and protection of turf and will behave in ways that make others feel less powerful. The Performer suffers from low self-esteem and seeks to belittle others in obvious or covert ways, such as name-calling or criticism. The Manipulator has only their own interest at heart, is easily threatened and is an expert in lying, deceiving and taking credit for the work of others.

And as power exists in many forms, a subordinate may bully a boss; a client might exhibit manipulative behavior toward a company’s representative; an individual may covertly threaten a peer. The bully seeks a form of advantage over the target, which may manifest in the threat to spread a malicious rumor, expression of unwarranted criticism over work product, or intimidation through body language, among numerous other behaviors.

Toxic Results
Experts estimate that one in three individuals has been the target of workplace bullying. In a business culture that doesn’t take steps to address the behavior, it will flourish. Estimates are that businesses stand to lose more than $200 million each year in employee turnover, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, loss of morale and loyalty, plus increased costs for workers’ compensation claims, insurance premiums and legal fees. Bullying behaviors, moreover, often overlap with illegal behaviors such as harassment and bias.

The effects on the health of a targeted individual are substantial as well. Along with a high level of stress and anxiety, the target may feel a loss of self-confidence, low self-worth, depression, a sense of isolation or uncharacteristic irritability, forgetfulness or hypervigilance, a feeling of constantly being on edge, among many other responses. She may resort to substance abuse to counter these responses. Physical symptoms may include headaches, loss of sleep, exhaustion, joint and muscle pain, ulcers, even skin problems such as eczema and urticaria.

Take a proactive stance
Bullying robs an organization of its most important asset–the energy, productivity and innovation of human capital. The elimination of these behaviors begins with leadership that actively recognizes and deals constructively to eradicate destructive actions.

Steps that can be taken include:
• Establish an anti-bullying policy that defines what bullying is and provides understandable examples of unacceptable work behaviors. It should state that the workplace recognizes the right of all employees to work in an atmosphere free from bullying.
• Set up a system to conduct neutral surveys that are sent to a third party for review, with guaranteed confidentiality. This gives employees the freedom to fully describe what they may experience.
• Provide procedures for reporting, investigation and mediation, including the assurance that there will not be retaliation against a person who reports unwanted behaviors.
• Train employees to be certain that all are aware of their responsibility to behave in a professional, courteous and effective manner. Leaders should reinforce their support and demand zero tolerance for bullying behaviors.

Your Action if Targeted
Without support, it can be extremely difficult for a targeted individual to deal with a bullying situation. If you feel that you’re a target, be aware of your stress levels and monitor your own mental health. Document what occurs contemporaneously; keep emails and memos that may be evidence. If the actions occur in private, try to record it on a smartphone. Maintain control and resist any provocation; do your best to act reasonably and create a contrast between your behavior and the bully’s. Remember that your actions could one day be part of a court procedure and maintain your professionalism.

Ultimately, these actions may not be enough and it may be in your best interest to leave the workplace situation. You can choose to leave on your own terms with your dignity intact, taking the opportunity to find a better situation that recognizes your unique human capital. HLM

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