When Playground Bullies Come to Work



One supervisor used four-letter words to critique an employee’s work during a meeting. Another was more subtle: Commenting on a subordinate’s efforts in a public setting, he told the unfortunate individual, “That’s not bad. I’m sure you did the best you could.” A third refrained from making public comments but took every opportunity to ridicule a co-worker whenever there were no witnesses around.

Their approaches may vary, but all three of these are workplace bullies. Workplace bullies are just grownup versions of the playground bully-people who use their social or political power to subject their victims to psychological abuse.

Bullies come in all varieties. There are overt bullies, like the swearing supervisor. And there are covert bullies, who have a little more finesse. But they’re all a threat to your workplace. Bullying behavior is intimidating to more than just the bully’s intended target; it’s also intimidating to those who merely witness the abuse. Needless to say, it does nothing to improve morale in your workplace. Nor does it improve productivity, retention, or profits.

So what can you do if there’s a bully in your group? If you’re the manager, your first step should be to try to separate the bully from the rest of the team. Perhaps you can arrange to have the individual transferred to another department or division.

If a transfer isn’t possible, schedule a closed-door meeting with this person and issue a verbal warning. Explain firmly and authoritatively that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Then go over the company’s penalties for this type of conduct as outlined in your employee handbook.

But what if you’re not the bully’s manager but the bully’s target? First, try distancing yourself from the bully. Whenever possible, communicate with him or her in writing, such as e-mail or memos. This will lessen your stress and, ideally, reduce your interactions with the bully. Plus, written communication can provide you with valuable proof of the unprofessional conduct if you need it.

It’s important to document instances of bullying. Begin by collecting copies of nasty e-mails and notes in a file folder. When a negative conversation occurs, write down everything you remember, word for word, and note the time, date, and location of the conversation, along with the names of any people who may have overheard it. If you decide to pursue a formal grievance at some point, your position will be stronger if it’s supported by detailed evidence.

If the behavior continues, consider filing a complaint. It’s not easy to take this type of complaint to the executive office. There’s always the risk that you’ll be perceived as a weakling- someone who cannot stand up for himself/herself-or as someone who’s unable to get along with others.

If you decide to take this route, begin by reviewing your employee handbook. Find out your organization’s process for dealing with grievances of this nature. Depending upon the exact nature of the psychological abuse, you might want to contact a professional for advice. Once you know your options, you’ll be in a better position to make the right decision for you.

As a last resort, update your résumé and start looking for a new job. There’s no harm in looking. Plus you’ll get a psychological lift from knowing that you’re actively doing something to remedy the situation. You can always suspend your search if the bully leaves.

Remember, enduring psychological abuse is not in anyone’s job description. Standing up for yourself and putting the bully in his or her place will boost your self-esteem and, perhaps, save another from this trauma. Do what you can to put a halt to this behavior.

Author:  Roger Zetter

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