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Dealing With Workplace Bullies Tips for HR

July 13, 2007
Related Topics: Harassment, Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Featured Article
Assisting an employee who seeks help after describing an abusive situation can be tricky. The HR professional must be able to distinguish a bully from an earnest but perhaps difficult or even troubled supervisor.

In all honesty, the employee must be able to appreciate the difference between what might feel like harassment from what is actually professional counseling and oversight. Understandably, these can be confused. Both are uncomfortable.

It’s natural to assume that an allegedly abusive situation is a bullying one from how the employee describes it. But the difficulty the employee and supervisor are having might be caused by something else entirely. When made aware of what sounds like bullying, HR professionals should make gentle (and, of course, lawful) inquires regarding both the employee and the supervisor concerning:

  • Substance abuse
  • Occupational stress.
  • Cultural or other insensitivity.
  • Performance and/or potential disciplinary issues.
  • Personal problems (family, health, monetary).

Bullying is not a variant of these, and it’s also not about degrees or gradations. Bullying is about political power.

The dictionary definition says a bully is "a person who hurts, frightens, or tyrannizes over those who are smaller or weaker." At work, a supervisor does not have to be brutish to tyrannize an employee if quiet micromanaging will have the same effect.

Bullies exploit their power over subordinates for their individual purposes. They are institutional renegades. Despite a likely first impression, bullies are not interested in furthering the employer’s mission or its practical applications. They are on their own mission: the conquest of individuals as a matter of personal compulsion.

To find the truth, an HR professional will have to look beyond the bully and the immediate incidents, which tend to be baffling, to the surrounding context. The objective is to determine if there is a pattern and practice of intimidating subordinates over time.

Bullies are not creative people. Their treatment of a current target will be remarkably like the last—sometimes even using the same words.

Arrange for someone to take someone who seems like a former target to lunch. Don’t hesitate to hire a work-savvy private detective to interview confidentially a former target who left to work elsewhere. What bullies do is not at all about a single complaining employee.

There were others who came before, and unless corrected, there will be others to follow. The bully is the common denominator.

Although they are probably not bullying other subordinates at the same time, other subordinates are being harmed nevertheless. Observe how they respond to the alleged bully.

When the bully talks to them, are they listening or deflecting? Are they engaged or withdrawn? Bullies aren’t adept at interpersonal skills.

They aren't interested in others’ feelings or concerns, and this lack of empathy and attention will make itself apparent in how employees respond to the bully. Generally speaking, employees will steer clear of engagement with a bully and attempt to stay under the bully’s radar.

Bullies don’t limit themselves to misusing just the employer’s human resources, but sometimes misappropriate other, identifiable employer resources as well. Feeling themselves to be on a righteous mission—and above the company's policies—workplace bullies have been known to make and then justify bogus business expenditures, such as furnishings, equipment, supplies, travel, phone, and so on.

Consult the company controller. Measure the alleged bully’s actions against the totality of his or her specific duties, the employer’s mission and its practical applications. Compare the reports the bully has made against his or her actual performance.

Focus on bullies’ substantive achievements. Have someone talk discreetly with clients and this person's counterparts in other departments. Is the bully paying attention to what she’s paid to do? Ultimately, a bullying predicament is resolved in the same way as any other work problem—by focusing on the work itself.

Specifically, a workplace bully is someone who:

  • Can’t connect with other people.
  • Bullies down and charms up.
  • Tends to unduly demonstrate respect but to fundamentally lack loyalty.
  • Uses the noise and drama of bullying to cover for this trait, and for their own performance inadequacies. Bullies are the ultimate defenders of mediocrity—starting with their own.
  • Is not a team player.

If a person with supervisory authority has a capacity to connect with others earnestly, to learn lessons and grow from them, the supervisor may have been unkind but is still reachable. He or she is not a bully.

Recent Articles by Robert Mueller, J.D.

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