True leadership: How to spot and stop a workplace bully

By Robert Half 29 May 2015

Dealing with workplace bullying can be one of a manager’s most difficult tasks, yet it is one that no manager can afford to ignore.

Allowing a workplace bully to continue their reign of terror in the office is likely to bring your whole team undone and may even affect productivity.

How to spot and deal with workplace bullying:

  • Don’t ignore employee complaints of workplace bullying
  • Have a policy and a process
  • Understand the legalities of workplace bullying
  • Create a workplace bully-free culture.

According to a Safe Work Australia report from 2013, just over 5 per cent of Australians were experiencing workplace bullying at the time of survey. A further 16 per cent stated they had been bullied previously in their current workplace, while 24 per cent of respondents reported they had experienced bullying in a former workplace.

Bullying isn’t your usual conflict-management scenario. It isn’t a personality clash or a communication breakdown. The Australian Human Rights Commission define it as “the repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates a worker”.

Contrary to popular opinion, those who are targeted for bullying aren’t usually the ‘loners and losers’, but are most often your most productive, skilled and popular team members.

Perhaps the workplace bully is jealous of their success and popularity, or afraid that their productivity makes the bully’s performance look bad. Often the targets are the people with a high degree of integrity, honesty and conscience who stand up for what is right, which may expose less than ideal practices by other staff.

How do you spot a workplace bully?

Bullies can often be charismatic and tend to collect collaborators around them, just like in the schoolyard. Look for sudden ‘groupings’ in your team and individuals who seem to be excluded from social interactions. Also watch out for sudden drops in performance, engagement or attitude, as this is usually the first sign that someone is being bullied. Any marked change in team dynamics, particularly after a new employee has arrived, should be investigated immediately. What can you do about it?

  1. Don’t ignore employee complaints of workplace bullying: A company that ignores or fails to act on a complaint can potentially be sued for damages by a bullied employee. If there are signs or complaints, act immediately. Most bullying is subtle and secretive, so by the time bullying makes itself visible, you may have already lost good people and seen your team’s morale affected. A good manager is actively looking for bullying and intervening early to fix it. Learn how to keep tabs on your team for help on how to do this.
  2. Have a policy and a process: Make sure there is a clear and transparent process that ensures that all complaints are investigated, that there is real action taken to protect the complainant (bullying will usually increase after a complaint is made) and that there are real consequences for the bully. Some workplace bullies can be rehabilitated, but many have antisocial personality features that are hard to change. Either way, the person who has been bullied should not have to continue working with the person who has attacked them.
  3. Understand the legalities of workplace bullying: The Safe Work Australia Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying gives an overview of what you need to do to stay on the right side of the legislation.
  4. Create a bully-free culture: Make it clear that your workplace will not tolerate bullying, and outline what bullying is and what will happen to anyone who does it. Make sure there are guides accessible on your intranet and in your staff recreation areas.

There is an old schoolyard wisdom that you have to punch the bully in the nose to make him stop. Though you can’t do this in the workplace, if you get the slightest whiff of workplace bullying in your team, step in fast and step in hard. Your team has the right to a safe work environment, and it’s your job to make that happen.

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