Dealing With Bullying on Your Team
Spotting and Stopping Bad Behavior
Marissa is one of your brightest, most talented, and ambitious team members.
However, over the last three months, she's taken a number of days off sick, and she's become distant, depressed, and anxious. The quality of her work has decreased drastically, and you're worried that she's looking for another job.
When you ask Marissa what's wrong, she's initially reluctant to answer your question. Eventually, she explains how a colleague is tormenting her with intimidating comments, isolating her from her colleagues, and spreading rumors about her.
You're shocked that something like this is happening in your team, and you can't believe that you haven't noticed it.
Bullying is more common than many people think, and its effect can be devastating. It has the power to reduce engagement, lower productivity, and destroy a team's morale.
In this article, we'll look at how you can identify bullying on your team, and we'll explore a step-by-step approach that you can use to deal with the situation.
In this article, we focus on dealing with bullying on your team. If you're the victim of bullying, see our article on dealing with bullying for tips and strategies that you can use to protect yourself.
The Bully Problem
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that can take one or more of the following forms:
- Verbal abuse.
- Offensive conduct or behaviors (including nonverbal behaviors), which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating.
- Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done."
Bullying on your team may be obvious, but it can also be quite subtle. Some specific examples of bullying behavior include:
- Spreading malicious rumors.
- Belittling a person's opinion, especially in front of others.
- Intimidating or abusing someone, physically or emotionally.
- Purposefully excluding someone from projects or social events.
- Undermining or impeding someone's work.
- Telling offensive jokes.
- Making persistent unreasonable requests of someone, or assigning them an excessive workload.
- Engaging in unnecessary or frequently-repeated criticism.
- Intentionally blocking someone's career advancement or training opportunities.
- Intruding on someone's privacy.
- Punishing someone undeservedly.
- Micromanaging someone intentionally.
- Taking away responsibilities without reason.
- Using social media to intimidate or exclude a person.
Negative Effects of Bullying
Workplace bullying can have a serious, profound, and long-lasting effect on the target's mental and physical health.
Victims of bullying can experience a number of symptoms, including increased stress levels, panic attacks, persistent anxiety, and depression. Often, this can result in decreased commitment and motivation, low self-confidence and self-esteem, reduced productivity, and high absenteeism. In extreme cases, victims may suffer from an impaired immune system, chronic fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cardiovascular problems, or migraines.
Although bullying mainly has a negative impact on the target, it's important to recognize that people who witness it can also be affected, too. In the 2007 book, "Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace," researchers Ståle Einarsen and Eva Gemzøe Mikkelsen explain that witnesses can experience feelings of social isolation, depression, helplessness, and anxiety, not just the targets themselves.
As such, bullies can severely affect your team members' morale, productivity, and motivation. Their actions may lead to higher staff turnover, a greater number of workplace accidents, and increased absenteeism. And, if rumors of bullying spread outside the organization, this can damage your organization's reputation.
The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 29 percent of victims contemplate suicide, and that 16 percent have a plan to carry it out. It's vital that you take steps to stop bullying immediately, and that you communicate your support to your team members. Depending on the severity of the attacks, the target might need the assistance of a suitably qualified medical professional.
Dealing With a Bully on Your Team
American president Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Knowing what's right doesn't mean much, unless you do what's right."
To help you identify bullying behavior on your team, start by building trust with your people. This creates rapport, and it means that your team members are more likely to approach you if they experience bullying. Make it clear that you're approachable, and that you genuinely care about your people.
So, what can you do if you identify a bully on your team?
If you suspect that one of your team members is a bully, you need to take immediate action. Follow the steps below to address their bad behavior, and to provide guidance and support for the victim.
Step 1: Review Your Organization's Policy on Bullying
Some organizations will already have a policy in place that identifies unacceptable behavior in the workplace. This may detail how to report, investigate, and manage bullying incidents.
If your organization does not have a formal policy in place, work with your HR department to write one for your team. Make it clear that your people should approach you or the HR manager if they are the victim of bullying. You might also want to schedule emotional intelligence, anti-bullying, and sensitivity training for your group.
This article is intended as a general guide only. The laws and terms defining bullying vary widely around the world. For example, in some countries, states, or regions, employers can be held liable for the actions of a bully, particularly if they are aware of what is happening and take no action, or if they don't take steps to discourage bullying behavior in the first place.
Get advice, therefore, from an appropriate local professional or advice agency before you publish any organizational policies or take further action.
Step 2: Talk to and Support the Victim
Next, talk to the victim, and find out exactly what has happened.
As they tell their story, use empathetic listening skills to show that you understand. They may feel upset, traumatized, and humiliated by what they've experienced; so, it's important to show your support, and to communicate your commitment to address the situation. It can also help to explain that it isn't their fault that they've been bullied – often, bullies target the brightest and best people, because they feel insecure around them.
Ask how they would like to see the situation resolved, and find out what you can do to help them bounce back. Encourage them to use techniques like cognitive restructuring, imagery, and deep breathing to cope with the situation.
If they have a medical certificate from their doctor, they may be able to take time out as paid or unpaid sick leave, depending on your country, state, or region. You could also suggest that they take some vacation time to rest and recover.
Step 3: Talk to Your Team
Your next step is to talk to your team members. Each person needs to understand what bullying is, and they should be able to identify unacceptable behaviors.
Make sure that everyone has a copy of your organization's anti-bullying policy, and take time to review it in detail with your people. Use stories to illustrate what bullying looks like, and to demonstrate how it negatively affects everyone on the team. Explain why anti-bullying rules are in place, and make the consequences of breaking them clear.
Next, encourage your team members to report any bullying behavior to you, or to the HR manager. If you suspect that people are too afraid to speak up, provide an anonymous channel for them to report any problems. For example, you could set up a suggestion box, or launch an anonymous online message board where employees can post comments.
Step 4: Prepare to Confront the Bully
Before you confront the bully, brush up on your conflict resolution skills. There's a good chance that bullies will deny their behavior, or that they'll get angry at the accusation. With good conflict resolution skills, you can manage the situation better, and with more self-confidence.
As part of your preparations, you also need to write down what you've observed. Talk to the target, if possible, list specific dates and bullying behaviors, and make a note of any witnesses. Use the situation, behavior, and impact tool to structure information that you can use to explain the impacts of each incident to the bully.
Step 5: Hold the Bully Accountable
When you're ready, schedule a time to talk to the bully, and make sure that an HR representative is present at the meeting.
Review your notes, remind yourself of the victim's testimony, and ask for the bully's side of the story. Depending on the outcome of this and the severity of the situation, and on your organization's anti-bullying policy and employment contracts, you may need to be ready to give bully a formal warning, or even take steps to terminate their contract.
It's possible that they don't realize the impact of their actions. If this is the case, and if the incident is relatively minor, let them know that the company will not tolerate bullying behavior, and explain the consequences of their actions.
Explain why good manners are important, and list the behaviors that they need to change. For example, instead of expressing anger and aggression, people should demonstrate empathy, humility, compassion, and tolerance towards colleagues, and they should focus on developing their emotional intelligence.
In these minor cases, make it clear what you expect the bully to do, and consider using a performance agreement to record their commitment to stop the behavior. This also holds them accountable if you have to take further action.
Make sure that your performance agreement has a clear timeline, and that it outlines what will happen if the bully doesn't change.
Step 6: Monitor Progress
Your last step is to monitor the bully closely, and to make sure that they keep to the agreement in the long term. Practice management by walking around to stay visible, and to show that you're looking out for this behavior.
Provide clear, specific, regular feedback on progress, let the bully know what they've done right, and outline what they still need to work on.
And, of course, keep on providing support to the victim, for as long as is necessary to resolve the problem.
Unfortunately, bullying is common in many organizations. It's defined as repeated, health-harming treatment of another person in the form of verbal abuse, offensive behaviors, or work interference.
If you find that you have a bully on your team, check your organization's handbook to see if there are policies in place to deal with the situation. Talk to the victim to find out exactly what's happened, and communicate your support and commitment to deal with the situation.
Get specifics about each incident, explain that the company will not tolerate bullying behavior, and, if necessary, give a formal warning, or take steps towards termination. For more minor incidents, get their commitment to change in writing, and make sure that they understand what will happen if they don't change.