How to Deal with a Workplace Bully

Bullying has become a popular topic in the last few years. I think many of us can call to mind a coworker or manager who was unduly hard on someone. Maybe that someone was you. These people can have a huge effect on morale and often make it hard to come to work. As managers and HR professionals, we have a responsibility to address and eliminate this bullying behavior from the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Bullies in the workplace intimidate, threaten and gain enjoyment out of tormenting others. Bullies tend to have specific targets, so only one person in the office may suffer directly from their abuse. Bullying can include name-calling, humiliation, undermining someone’s work, setting them up to fail and spreading hateful gossip.

Early in my career, I had a boss who regularly bullied employees. Any of us could be the target of her yelling and intimidation, but there was one person on our team who bore the brunt of it. She often found fault where there was no fault. It was uncomfortable to watch our coworker get ripped apart over nothing. Her management style had us all on edge for that reason and had a negative effect on morale.

What to do if you are the victim of a workplace bully?

Employees who are bullied at work can suffer from anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping and physical problems that develop as a result of these things. If you suspect you are being bullied, start by documenting the situation. Make notes of what the bully does and when it happens. Keep track of how you feel and how the behavior is affecting your work. If you notice that this is an ongoing problem, it may be time to seek help.

Help in the workplace often means going to HR or a manager. It can be challenging if the bully is your manager, but do not be afraid to speak to your manager’s manager or HR. In a worst-case scenario, you may have to make a plan to find a new job and get out of a bullying environment. Leaving a bullying environment is not a sign that you failed; it is a sign that you are taking care of yourself.

You will also want to turn to your support network. Find the people in your workplace or personal life who care about you, and be open about what you are experiencing at work. The best way to start healing from the damage done by a bully is to take care of yourself. This may also involve enlisting some professional help from a therapist. Most importantly, don’t blame yourself. The problem is with the bully, not you.

How to talk to a bully on your team?

For those of us who are managers or in HR, we may find ourselves having to address problems with a workplace bully on our team. If an employee comes to you and claims to be a victim of bullying, take the employee seriously. Some bullies are very good at hiding the bullying in the presence of a manager, so do not assume that it is all in the employee’s head just because you have not witnessed it.

Do not just tell a bullied employee to go work it out on their own. Investigate the bullying behavior and address it directly with the bully. Give specific examples, and explain what appropriate workplace conduct is. Remind the bully that failure to communicate with coworkers in a respectful manner could result in further corrective action or termination. Check in regularly to make sure the behavior has improved.

Encouraging an environment free of bullying

California recently passed legislation that requires employers covered by the state’s mandatory harassment training law to include training on preventing abusive workplace conduct in their anti-harassment training. Even if you are not in a state that requires such training, it is a good idea to include it as part of your manager training. Help managers understand how to recognize bullying, and give them the tools to address the problem.

We also need to focus on creating environments where threats and intimidation are not part of our management style. There seems to be this tendency in our society to pick on those who are weak and different. If a celebrity gains weight or wears the wrong outfit, the comments can be downright mean and threatening. It’s no wonder that this attitude trickles over into the workplace. As a manager or HR professional, you can counter this by encouraging an environment where praise and positive feedback are the norm. Do not be the manager who has the reputation of yelling at employees when things go wrong, and be a good role model by not engaging in office gossip that cuts others down.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

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