The View from HR

Bullying in workplace must be handled

CorrespondentOctober 2, 2011 

Did you ride a school bus as a child? Buses, playgrounds, lunchrooms, bathrooms, hallways, gym classes; all are stages for bullies to act out their psychological or physical power.

Researchers claim that 50 percent to 75 percent of employees have witnessed or experienced workplace bullying not much different from the playground variety (see Wikipedia for more data). Humiliation, hazing, hostile and public communication, unfair questions, personal attacks, threatening stares, silent treatments, unachievable deadlines and other "blows to the heart and mind" are examples of bullying.

It is no surprise that behaviors learned in our youth are brought to the adult workplace, that most groups of people have a few personality disorders at play or that bullying is sometimes used to achieve advantage. What can you do?

The manager's role

Managers and leaders must know the difference between managing and bullying. Performance discussions, coaching, correction, accountability, consequences and rewards are tools in a good manager's arsenal. Bullying is personalization or humiliation layered on top of, or used instead of, good management practices.

Look at this example. Carl is often late to team meetings and is sometimes unprepared. A frustrated manager might say, "We've been at this for 20 minutes now, Carl, so you will have to catch up later. It may not matter anyway since I doubt you are prepared." This is classic bullying that stayed within legal bounds and was wrapped in a work-related message. But the damage done to Carl, and to the manager's reputation with those who observed, is serious.

It is much better to deal with Carl's poor work performance privately and with objective facts. Avoid personalization. "You were late to our team meetings four of the last six sessions. Each time, we waited for you to see whether it would be just a minute or so. We wasted the time of all six people, and it is hurting your credibility with the team. Plus, when you did have your report on two occasions, the team was unable to see your progress and provide support." Ask whether Carl sees the problem, ask for Carl's plan to prevent the problem, and offer help in removing hurdles in Carl's way. Tell Carl what will happen if it continues. Empathize with personal issues Carl raises, but do not use them against him or let Carl cloud the real issue. Focus on the reasonable needs of the team.

Employee victims

Employees suffering bullying by managers or peers can become de-motivated, angry, depressed and resentful. Bullying, like its big brother, harassment, is usually an inappropriate exercise of power. Your options as an employee-victim of repeated bullying are basic: Confront the bully, or seek help from a manager. Most bullies like passive victims, so efforts to resist and resolve can be very effective. Yes, if the bully is your manager, it involves more risk and may require help from the next level up. Ask your HR leader for guidance. Remember the difference between bullying and good performance management if you expect to be taken seriously.

Maybe everything you need to know was learned in kindergarten, as the book says, but this is one bad feature of the early years with no place in the functional adult workplace.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro. CAI helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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