5 Ways to Spot a Workplace Bully

With instances of violence in the workplace making more headlines, employers should know the warning signs of bullying before it escalates.

By Rakesh Malhotra, founder, Five Global Values

Workplace bullying is more than an occupational hazard; it is a chronic corporate disease. Workplace bullying can be defined as "repeated, health-harming abusive conduct committed by bosses and co-workers."

Prevalence of workplace bullying is evident in the finding of a 2010 survey conducted by Workplace Bullying Institute, which found 35 percent of the U.S. workforce--an estimated 53.5 million Americans--report being bullied at work, while an additional 15 percent witness it. Half of all Americans have directly experienced it. Simultaneously, 50 percent reported neither experiencing nor witnessing bullying. Hence, it is a "silent epidemic."

Bullying as children is quite harmful but as adults, the prevailing attitude is that children will grow out of it. Unfortunately, many child bullies do not grow out of it. Most continue bullying coworkers, employees, spouses, children and strangers.

Read related: "Bullying: Who's Covered for the Loss?"

Recognizing a bully is difficult in the beginning stages of a burgeoning business relationship. Most bullies have a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality. They portray themselves to society as polite and respectful. They can be extremely charming in public, even flattering their coworker’s abilities. This gives the bully control because they are setting up a manipulated environment in which they can dictate their victims emotions based on a whim.

It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of a bully in order to help the victim and the victimizer deal with and eliminate the behavior. Here are five attributes of the adult bully: 

  1. He or she doesn’t believe in following the rules that society dictates, in any capacity.
  2. A bully craves negative attention.
  3. Bullies seek to put people down by manipulating and degrading them in front of their peers.
  4. Bullies seek power.
  5. Bullies spread untrue rumors in the workplace, seethe with disrespect toward their victims and refuse to listen to a victim in any capacity.

Other signs that a bully is in your midst include their reactions to emotional situations. In spite of their intelligence or eloquent vocabulary, bullies have the emotional fortitude of a five-year-old. If a coworker accidentally spills a cup of coffee on their shirt, the bully will not hesitate to throw a temper tantrum.

Bullies may also have a prejudice toward working with women, or with those of another faith. These people will immediately become the target of a bully’s anger and manipulation.

What can you do?

There are currently no federal or state laws prohibiting workplace bullying, so it may be difficult to fire a bully right away. And because workplace bullying cases are not covered under federal anti-discrimination law unless the target is a member of a protected class, employers must be careful to avoid charges of unfair practices when addressing a workplace bully.

Read related: "What Employers Should Do About Workplace Bullying."

However, there are still things a victim can do. The first is to know the signs of a bully and notice if you are being bullied.

In many cases bullies are persecuting another person based on their religion, gender, race or other qualifying issue. Sexual harassment or persecution is illegal in the workplace and there are legal ways to prosecute the bully. Unfortunately, general bullying is hard to prosecute because there is a lack of legal theory and practice in regard to it.

However, there are some basic tips for employers to spot, prevent and eliminate workplace bullies.

First and foremost, employers, owners and managers need to become actively involved and take responsibility for creating a healthy working environment, ensuring a culture of equality in job selection, promotion, compensation, reward and bonus. They should clearly lay down the rules to provide equal opportunity for everyone.

Employee handbooks and codes of conduct should clearly define consequences and punishment if someone is engaged in bullying at the workplace. Institute a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying, with a specific list of actions to be taken if bullying is discovered.

There are several steps to take when it’s time for you to discipline a workplace bully. At the very first complaint, it’s your duty as an employer to sit down with the accused person, his immediate supervisor and someone from your human resources department.

In some cases, when confronted, the accused will be contrite. If he offers to apologize and promises never to repeat the behavior, you may wish to simply write him a reprimanding letter and store in his personnel files. You might also inform this person that he’s on probation: that his actions will be carefully monitored by his supervisor over the next few weeks.

When the boss is the bully

The boss may be a bully if he or she: 

  1. Insults coworkers (remember, one person’s “joke” may be another’s insult)
  2. Undermines another employee’s work by creating a hostile environment, perhaps by consistently calling their attention to their “flaws”? (Bullies focus on a person, while constructive criticism focuses on a task.)
  3. Ignores his or her employees’ suggestions
  4. Humiliates his or her employees in front of others. 

In this economy, it isn't easy for an employee to confront his or her employer about bullying. To circumvent the situation, employees must first understand whether the boss being tough or if there is a repeated pattern of abuse or harassment. The preferred approach is for employees to understand their boss and “work around him” if necessary.

If an employee decides to confront the boss about bullying, he or she must first have an assertive and candid conversation and ask the boss to define job expectations. Then the employee should document everything and watch the situation for a few weeks. Iif there is no improvement, they should report the situation to human resources.


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