What to Do About the Bully in Your Workplace

by Sheryl Nance-Nash on April 15, 2013
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Bullies are bad for business. “They are too expensive to keep,” says Gary Namie, co-founder of The Workplace Bullying Institute.

Although it’s tough to put a number on total costs, Namie says, the stakes are high for big corporations and small employers alike. Each case of bullying leads to turnover costs equal to double the salary of the person who leaves because of the bully, the Institute estimate.

Kelly Armstrong, a staffing manager at WinterWyman, agrees. Bullying has a large-scale, negative impact on individual employees and the organization as a whole: You can expect to see decreases in productivity, revenue, and morale and increases in absenteeism, turnover, stress, and the risk of accidents, she says.

What’s more, notes David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm, “The smaller the business, the greater the exposure, as more people see and know of the behavior.”

Bullying cannot be ignored. The big question is: How do you manage the situation? The Intuit Small Business Blog asked a few more experts to weigh in with some advice.

Take Every Complaint Seriously

Treat a bullying incident the same way that you would handle a complaint about sexual harassment, says Kelly Kolb, an attorney at law firm of Fowler White Boggs. Write down the details of the employee’s complaint and ask the employee to provide any supporting evidence, such as the names of witnesses, email, and other relevant documentation.

A bullied employee typically feels helpless, gets distracted by those feelings, and becomes less productive. “You must bring them back to their ‘center’ by showing them that you take the complaint seriously and will act on it, thereby assuring them that they can control the relevant aspects of the workplace,” he says.

You do not, however, want to promise a specific outcome — only that you will investigate the complaint. Avoid taking sides, being dismissive, and asking someone who directly reports (or is otherwise close) to either employee to investigate the claims. Do not, under any circumstances, retaliate against either employee or anyone who participates in the investigation, Kolb advises.

Investigate the Situation

Once filed, fully investigate the complaint. Interview witnesses. Verify the facts to the best of your ability. Draw a reasoned conclusion about what happened. Document your conclusion and your reasons for it. Based on the conclusion, decide what action to take, if any. According to Kolb, this may include: documenting incidents in writing; putting an employee on probation or suspending them with or without pay; reassigning the bully to other location; mandating anger-management counseling for the bully; or terminating the bully with cause.

Once you decide to approach the bully, begin the conversation by explaining the issue concisely, without laying blame, recommends Halley Bock, CEO and president of Fierce, a leadership development and training firm. For example, you might start with, “I’d like to talk with you about the effect your behavior is having.” Give a few examples that illustrate the behavior. Remember that this not about proving anything, but a search for what’s happening and its root causes. “You give your opening statement, then it is your turn to listen,” Bock says.

If the bullying was unintentional, offer support and coaching to help the person change their behavior, says Lisa Parker, president of Heads Up Coaching and Consulting. “If the behavior was intentional, state that you have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and be clear on the consequences if the bullying continues.”

You also have to decide whether the situation warrants firing the employee. If they’ve been warned about the behavior and it continues, “fire them,” says Josh Denton of Denton Consulting Group. Apply rules consistently across all layers of the organization. For instance, Lewis cautions: “Leadership-level bullies should not be tolerated any more than those in the ranks of staff. The same rules should apply.”

Know the Law

Twenty-one states have proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation, but no laws have passed, Kolb says. Companies can take control by developing and implementing anti-bullying policies themselves.

Meanwhile, if you’re concerned that the employee who was bullied may sue the company or pursue other action because of the perception of a hostile work environment, consult an attorney, Parker advises.

Keep an Open Mind

Although you want to investigate every complaint, do not assume that all complaints are honest or well-intentioned, Kolb says. It’s not uncommon, he says, for employees who are working under a new manager to file discrimination and harassment complaints.

For example, they may complain about a supervisor who is doing nothing other than requiring his or her subordinates to work a full day efficiently and productively.

“Some employees will take advantage of the opportunity to use complaints of bullying as a way for the tail to wag the dog,” Kolb notes.

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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