Workplace bullies intentionally shove or walk into people, block their passage in the halls, lock them in closets, steal kisses, and steal personal possessions. They may confront, intimidate, and/or abuse their peers and even supervisors. And sometimes the supervisors are the bullies.
Bullying is about power, usually by someone who perceives he or she has very little of it. It’s also an early form of aggressive, violent behavior. Employees bullied by their peers may fake illness or otherwise refuse to attend work, may bring weapons to work to defend themselves against the bullies, or may turn violent themselves and seek retaliation because they feel those in charge can’t or won’t protect them.
Bullying costs public entities in time and money. The financial costs are invoiced as legal fees, property repair, low productivity, of loss of income. Time is measured in lost-hours from work due to fear or illness and in responding to reported cases of bullying. The risk can be managed and it’s to the entity’s advantage to support strategies to protect workers.
Bullies become invincible in their own minds. They are the berating, intimidating, harassing and even violent colleague, co-worker or boss. Bullying manifests itself as road rage and workplace violence, which can escalate into assault or homicide charges.
Bullies lower workplace morale. Victims become sad, depressed, angry, vengeful, scared and confused employees. These feelings get in the way of thinking, creating and producing. The bullies themselves can be angry and have low self-esteem, which they express by hitting, strong-arming or pushing, which causes physical pain, or calling people names, teasing or scaring them, which cause emotional pain. All these feelings fester and foment into a workplace environment where neither senior management nor employees want to be.
Bullies may wish to be more like, or are jealous of, the person they target who is smarter, different, or more popular. Anyone can be a target—but the targets are likely to have similar psychological traits: shy, sensitive and perhaps anxious or insecure. Others may be chosen for physical attributes: weight, stature or disability, or because they are a different nationality, race or religion than the bully.
The more obvious bullies are outgoing, aggressive, active and expressive. Their usual techniques are brute force or harassment. They need to rebel to feel superior and secure. They flout rules and regulations. The less obvious bullies are more Machiavellian. They’re reserved, controlling with a glib tongue, saying the proper thing at the proper time, and out and out lying. These bullies gain their power quietly through guile, trickery and deceit.
No matter which style a bully exhibits, there are characteristics the two types share. They both:
Ideally senior management will support a program to reduce the need for bullying. The task for developing the program might be delegated to a committee headed up by the safety officer or risk manager. An approach that involves representatives from senior management, human resources, legal, and all levels of employees is the most effective. When all concerned are working toward the common goal, the synergy maximizes the efforts. Psychologist and author Carla Garrity says, “You can outnumber the bullies if you teach the silent majority to stand up.”
Analyze quantity and types of complaints that could indicate a hostile workplace environment due to bullying. Look for trends:
Review existing procedures on hiring, interviewing and reference checking. Is there in-house training for supervisors who interview?
What state and local laws exist that affect bullying behavior? Are there special laws that relate to the entity’s purpose (incarcerated, criminals, youth, seniors, disabled or immigrant)?
Educate supervisors: Help them visualize bullying traits. Encourage them to listen to their staff members and to ask questions.
Instruct supervisors to take their employees’ complaints of shoving, name-calling, harassment and theft seriously. Help supervisors identify symptoms that their staff may be victims. Some are withdrawal, lower productivity, and a sudden need for extra money.
Provide a checklist of how to report an incident internally. Include the name of a person or persons to call, their phone numbers, and what to record and report.
Engage supervisors in reducing bullying behavior by modeling nonphysical, consistently enforced measures of discipline as options to ridicule, sarcasm, yelling or ignoring bullying behavior.
Teach supervisors how to stop bullying behavior. What levels of intervention are appropriate? What are the signs that there is physical danger to the victim and/or the intervening supervisor? Who should the supervisor turn to for assistance?
Instruct them how to report an incident and to whom. Identify the information that needs to be recorded by senior management in order to follow up with questions and counseling for the victim, the bully and their individual supervisors. Explain any district, county or state rules and regulations that apply. Identify penalties for not complying.
The public entity can teach employees ways to resolve arguments other than violent words and actions. Tell them to “Use your words” when they are puffing up with anger or starting to make fists or getting ready to yell.
Street smarts can keep staff members from looking like a target for bullies: Walking confidently, staying alert to surroundings and standing up for themselves verbally can go a long way to discourage a bully from picking on a person.
To address everyone’s differences (gender, age, nationality, religious beliefs, family values) are neutralized, create a policy that:
Work with the human relations or training department to develop in-service education for supervisors and employees that expands on the policies. Provide this training on a regular basis.
Provide a several-tiered method of reporting bullying; if the supervisor is the bully, who does the employee report to? If the agency head and the deputy are both bullies, who does the supervisor report the incident to?
Oliver, Barbara B., Bullying Behavior Is the Root of Many School Issues
OSH Answers: Bullying in the Workplace, Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health
Veale, Patricia, and Davidson Trahaire, Workplace Bullying—Prevention Is Better Than Cure, HR Connection, Vol. 4