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workplace bullying

Use Your Company’s Culture to Stand Up to Workplace Bullying

Headlines about egregious workplace bullying cases are not uncommon. Job-related harassment became such a prominent problem that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave it an official description:

“Unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history)."

The agency specified that extreme cases and attempts to retaliate against people filing charges are unlawful. As a result, many companies have policies that have consequences for employees who break harassment laws.

However, most workplace bullying incidents or patterns don’t meet extreme criteria. More often, harassment is subtler and acts like an undercurrent in the work environment. While lower-key bullying may not be against the law, it can still be devastating to the targeted employees, seriously erode employee engagement, and curtail organizational success.

Workplace Bullying Profiles

Workplace behavioral and leadership experts Ludmila Praslova, Ron Carucci, and Caroline Stokes wrote in depth about workplace bullying in an article for Harvard Business Review (HBR). According to their research, approximately 30 percent of American workers have experienced harassment at work.

Since most bullying isn’t blatantly over the top, leaders often discount the instances as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Additionally, bullying takes many forms, so companies can find it challenging to enforce specific standards on a shape-shifting target. However, not addressing even low-key incivility and toxicity can be costly.

The authors of the HBR article specified six types of bullying, based on their studies and data from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), and provided examples:

  • Hostile
    Loudly admonishing or lying to get someone fired or otherwise make them suffer.
  • Instrumental
    Spreading rumors to remove a perceived rival or to claim resources.
  • Direct
    Openly blaming and shaming, sending angry messages, hostile body language.
  • Indirect
    Withholding information, circumventing, sabotaging.
  • Overt
    Humiliating, silencing someone in front of others.
  • Covert
    Gaslighting, subtle blaming.

The authors also outlined the potential costs of various forms of bullying. For individuals, these can include:

  • Physical
    Illness, burnout, disability
  • Psychological
    Anxiety, depression, PTSD, insomnia, loss of confidence
  • Social
    Loss of reputation, trust, support, and professional networks
  • Economic
    Loss of job track and income

While bullying’s toll on employees is significant, organizations also suffer, with symptoms such as:

  • Absenteeism and healthcare costs
  • Loss of productivity
  • Turnover and replacement costs
  • Reputational and brand damage
  • Limited talent pool

In an article for HR Brew, author and journalist Amanda Shiavo notes that bullying-related turnover is particularly high among Gen Z workers. Not only are they more likely to leave if harassed, but they are also more vocal about their experiences online. Employers should be concerned if the fastest growing workforce segment associates them with unchecked bullying.

Misconceptions about Workplace Bullying

Some Bullying is Justified

Some leaders try to characterize what they may consider mild harassment as something relatively positive. For example, they might excuse their bullying of employees to push them to up their performance or hold them to a higher standard. They may have learned to express power and get results this way from previous bosses or even grown up with this dynamic.

Bosses who bully may get short-term results, but employees usually comply out of fear or dread. Ultimately, this tactic is counterproductive, leading to the fallout outcomes listed above.

Another misstep is excusing bullies on the team if they are high performers. Leaders might justify their hands-off approach by saying these stars are merely exerting their competitiveness. And they often don’t want to rock the boat because they don’t want to lose people who bring in business or offer a high level of expertise.

However, by turning a blind eye to these people’s behavior, they signal to the rest of the staff that bullying is not just tolerated but rewarded.

Interestingly, the HBR authors found that many top performers were likelier to be picked on than harassing others. These conscientious, high-achieving employees are dedicated to organizational goals compared to bullies, whose agendas are grounded in self-interest. The HBR article outlines how bullies are often “mediocre performers who may appear to be stars, while in fact they often take the credit for others.”

Bullying Interventions Always Work

Many leaders want to do the right thing and eliminate bullying in their workplace. However, their efforts often fail because they lack a systematic method for preventing poor behavior and dealing with it when it occurs.

The HBR authors caution against the following interventions:

  • The Reactive Approach
    This tactic focuses on dealing with harassment after people have been bullied and adverse effects are already in play. Additionally, leaders usually only react to overt bullying while subtle bullying continues unchecked.

  • Asking the Victim to Shoulder the Responsibility
    Ludmila Praslova reports that bullying targets are often told to “just fix it or figure it out” with the aggressors. She notes that many harassment victims feel unable to respond and have little hope of improved outcomes.
  • Individual-level Focus
    Leaders who use this method try to “fix” the traits of specific bullies or victims with anger management programs or assertiveness training. These tactics can’t address entrenched characteristics like entitlement or fragile ego and do nothing to keep others from indulging in poor behavior.

Bully-Proof your Company Culture

Instead of tackling bullying after they hear about or observe it, leaders should focus on prevention and make zero-tolerance for harassment part of their company culture. They can begin by assessing their organizations’ potential for developing this problem.

One helpful resource is the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission’s Chart of Risk Factors for Harassment and Responsive Strategies. This tool helps leaders consider facets of their companies they may not have thought would fuel bullying and provides ways to respond.

The chart specifies the necessity of building a workplace culture that emphasizes civility and respect to create a firewall against bullying. Leaders can systematically improve their culture by taking the following actions that David J. Friedman outlines in his book, Culture by Design.

  • Clearly articulate the behaviors that they want their staff to embody. CEOs shouldn’t assume that everyone will interpret company values the same way. Instead, the leader should define and describe precisely what living up to those values looks like within their organization.

  • Weed bad apples out before they’re on the team. Hiring managers should use the leader’s prioritized behaviors as metrics for hiring the right staff. They shouldn’t limit their criteria to qualifications, talents, or even appealing personalities. It’s just as vital for them to select people whose views align with the culture that the CEO wants to cultivate.

  • Create rituals to practice desirable behaviors. Performing rituals is a highly effective way to help employees internalize specific conduct—even people who tend to break the rules. These rituals should encourage employees to regularly talk and think about the behaviors the CEO wants to see. Eventually, the routines evolve into good habits for most people.

  • Devise ways to communicate behavioral standards throughout the organization. Leaders should use every opportunity to keep prioritized behaviors top of mind for all staff and weave them into all forms of communication.

  • Take every opportunity to reinforce aspirational culture. Leaders can do this by identifying “teachable moments” and scheduling regular coaching sessions for all levels of employees to give them constructive feedback and tips. These sessions can include talking about real-life situations at work and appropriate behavioral responses.

  • Mentor problem employees. Often, a series of one-on-one sessions can significantly change a person’s understanding of their behavior. Leaders can use these opportunities to offer guidance and point out that their conduct overshadows their contributions. As noted above, focusing on individuals won’t prevent systemic problems. It is only one in a series of steps leaders can take.

  • Lead by example. Leaders can influence everyone in the workplace by living out the behaviors they expect to see in their employees. They should strive to be a visible standard-bearer that others want to emulate. And by setting an example, they demonstrate how seriously they take their company’s culture.

  • Anchor the culture with accountability. CEOs should develop a systematic approach to holding people accountable for their conduct as well as their performance. The culture’s preferred behaviors can be used as measurements in employee reviews.

If CEOs implement all these measures, they give their companies the best chance to prevent and dissolve targeting misconduct. And leaders should be ready and willing to terminate individuals who persist in defying this culture. David Friedman calls this the “ultimate accountability.” Whatever value these bullies bring to the table is not worth the price the rest of the organization pays to keep them on board.