Bully for You?
Print Issue: May 2017
The damages of workplace bullying go beyond the psychological costs. Bullying costs U.S. businesses in excess of $300 billion annually, according to a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association. The study notes that bullying resulted in reduced productivity, employee and customer turnover, absenteeism, litigation, compensation and disability claims, and healthcare costs.
But despite the damage and cost, the practice of bullying continues. More than three-fourths of U.S. workers report that they have been bullied themselves, have seen it happen to others, or are aware that it happens in their workplaces, according to data from multiple sources, including the Workplace Bullying Institute, CareerBuilder.com, and Civility Partners LLC.
Understanding the causes and dynamics of workplace bullying, and learning and applying the best prevention and mitigation strategies, will help managers maintain a more professional, productive, and satisfying workplace—one with reduced turnover and fewer disruptive behaviors. Managers can increase their chances of spotting the red flags of nascent bullying when they occur, and subsequently prevent escalation. In cases where the bullying has become too toxic for the organization to allow, knowledgeable managers can deal with the problem more effectively from a disciplinary standpoint.
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of people by perpetrators. The abusive conduct is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating action; sabotage-type behavior that prevents work from getting done; or simple verbal abuse.
Managers and supervisors can bully in a variety of ways. Bullying can take the form of subtle public disrespect of an employee, condescending micromanagement, or open expressions of disgust or disdain. Bullying can also involve imposing unrealistic due dates on projects and being overly harsh and unfair during performance reviews. More severe forms of bullying may involve coercing favors, or threatening to fire an employee for minor performance failings.
Workplace bullying can also occur between equals, where one employee assumes superiority and goes out of his or her way to make other employees feel inferior or weak, either mentally or physically. In these cases, the continuum of bullying can stretch from unprofessional disrespect to verbal threats to physical violence by either the victim or the perpetrator.
One of the worst aspects of bullying is the emotional and physical toll it can have on the bullied. Bullying can lead the victim to a dark place, accompanied by a terrible combination of emotions, including fear, humiliation, contempt, anger, and hopelessness. The resulting stress and inner conflict can adversely affect an employee’s physical and mental health, and impede work performance.
For a manager, preventing, mitigating, and addressing bullying can take deft leadership and people skills, as well as an understanding of how human dynamics play out in difficult, emotionally charged situations. By demonstrating how different managers succeeded in tackling the problem, the following real-life case studies from the United States offer best practice guidance, as well as educational examples of the different dynamics at play.
POLICY IN ACTION
Back in the 1990s, John, an experienced security manager for a large U.S. Midwest building maintenance company, wanted to learn more about the phenomenon of workplace bullying that was emerging as an issue around the country.
Drawing on his prior experience writing prison policies in the public sector, John formulated a general workplace policy for his company that included the newer issue of workplace bullying. John eventually moved on to a new position, managing a large security company in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. There, he used his experience to write his new company’s general workplace policy, which included a section on bullying.
This successful workplace policy was based on a solid corrective counseling approach John had learned earlier in his career. He now taught security supervisors how to use the approach to prevent and mitigate workplace bullying and other unprofessional conduct.
The approach was simple but effective: First, be proactive and positive, with a spirit of education and understanding, rather than pursue punitive measures that could be construed as bullying from the top down. Next, offer real-life examples of the problem behaviors employees may be witnessing or involved in themselves, and then explain with practical details why they would not want to engage in this type of behavior themselves or tolerate it in others. In addition, be firm but fair in stating the consequences of progressive discipline that will be used in response to policy violations. Finally, maintain a method for reporting violations anonymously and free from retaliation.
It wasn’t long before John got to apply his policy work and theories to actual practice at the workplace he managed. One of his employees was reported for starting vicious rumors about another employee, hoping to get her fired.
John decided to confront the rumor bully about this violation of policy, but from an educational and learning perspective more than a disciplinary one. Before this, John spoke with the victim to learn how the episode was affecting her; he also learned that the rumor, which involved her off-duty conduct, was unfair and untrue.
John knew the value of an approach aimed at raising empathy and awareness. So, with the victim’s permission, John told the rumor monger the truth of the situation and the impact it was having on the victim, without any blaming, fault-finding, or criticism.
The approach worked. Faced with the facts in a neutral way, the employee accepted that his behavior had turned out to be a harmful form of bullying. He also revealed the root cause of his behavior: his fear that the other employee would get the promotion he had worked hard to earn.
In the end, the employee agreed to actively support John’s professional workplace policy by undertaking an effort to help others become more aware of the negative aspects of rumors. Given his response, the employee’s earlier rumor-spreading did not disqualify him from getting his desired promotion, because he was the most qualified candidate.
Now a security executive, Robert had a more extreme experience–he dealt with workplace bullying in the past that rose to toxic levels and nearly poisoned the whole organization. At a previous job, Robert had been through unpleasant bullying experiences working under a mean-spirited boss with an unprofessional management style that included yelling, accusing, demanding, shaming, taunting, and humiliating subordinates.
Given this experience, Robert vowed never to use the bullying tactics that his boss had employed. He also worked to develop an awareness of the damaging effects of bullying, and it informed how he approached incidents of conflict in his management jobs.
Robert now manages a medium-sized 400-employee private security company in the U.S. Southeast. When he first began this management position, he received a complaint that one of his security officers had been loudly arguing in public with another officer at a high-visibility customer site.
Robert immediately removed both employees from the site, knowing this was the customer’s preference. He then met with the two employees together to discuss the conflict. By letting them both talk and listen carefully, Robert understood that they were both invested in getting a particular outcome to their conflict, which involved a third party–the female roommate of one of the officers.
Although this initial intervention seemed to indicate that the situation could be resolved by separating the two, the conflict continued. One officer made threats toward his coworker, as well as the coworker’s family and friends. Robert carefully evaluated the situation for danger potential. He assessed that the aggressor seemed to be a bully by nature, without any interest in correcting his behavior.
In conducting this assessment, Robert systematically followed the steps he had learned from recent participation in an online workplace violence webinar. First, he went through the employee’s HR file, cover to cover, to detect any red flags that might have been missed in the hiring process.
What Robert found was a job that wasn’t listed on the officer’s employment application. When this employer was called for details of the job separation, the employer told Robert that the reason for the firing was an arrest for domestic violent assault. Robert confirmed this with the employee.
Next came checking with the county regarding the employee’s criminal history background, which had not been checked before the initial hire. From this, Robert found out that the charges were dismissed with prejudice, as the employee had indicated, but without much detail. However, Robert was able to talk directly to the prosecutor, who revealed that the victim had withdrawn her complaint. At this point, Robert dug a little deeper and uncovered a few more red flags pointing toward a possible “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” situation.
Given all this, Robert decided to put the aggressor on strict probation, with a last and final warning. Sure enough, the officer was later arrested for domestic violence again. The arrest triggered his termination.
Lynette manages the large corporate security division of a Fortune 100 company on the U.S. West Coast. Lynette was originally hired in large part because of her background in HR and counseling. When she came to the job, she inherited a workplace situation that included some existing employee bullying.
At Lynette’s office, several shift supervisors were bullying their subordinates into not reporting safety accidents, because the resulting worker’s compensation claims ate into the operational budgets for training and the overtime that was needed during emergencies. But a whistleblower reported the situation to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), so the problem was now a major concern for the corporate executives that Lynette reported to.
Lynette tackled the problem head on. She met with each of the shift supervisors separately to discuss why they were engaging in this prohibited behavior. She found out this had been driven by the previous security director, who was working under the threat of layoffs because of budget stress. Lynette informed the supervisors that she would take a different approach, and she solicited their suggestions on how the problem might be stopped. She listened carefully—not only to what they were saying, but how they were saying it and what they were not saying.
What they weren’t saying turned out to be pivotal for resolving the problem. Lynette realized that in their minds, they were trying to prevent what they feared most—losing their jobs for not containing workplace accidents. Given their mindset, it was acceptable to them, or even preferable, if staff did not report accidents.
But Lynette also realized that the supervisors did not know that firing them for this reason alone would be considered illegal retaliation against OSHA regulations, and it would violate the corporation’s own policy on ethics. Thus, she carefully explained this to them collectively, so they all heard the same thing. They were relieved that they wouldn’t get fired for doing the right thing, and this gave them the needed permission to do so.
Wally was a small kid growing up in the Northeast United States, where the bigger, older kids in his neighborhood picked on him. Tired of being the target of the unwanted behavior of the older kids, Wally chose the aggressive conflict response of fighting fire with fire—he started subtly bullying some of the smaller kids in the neighborhood.
This story continues when Wally was an adult and started a second career in security management after his first career in law enforcement. His second boss was a highly intelligent Type A personality and a bully. Whenever Wally didn’t achieve the needed quarterly revenue and performance results, the boss would use him as an example of how to fail in front of all coworkers at their quarterly review meetings.
Wally decided to confront his boss about this behavior during a one-on-one conversation. He was open and up-front, and told his boss how the public criticism hurt his confidence. He owned up to his hurt feelings, and did not blame them on the boss. Still, the boss apologized, explaining that he had wrongly allowed himself to get caught up in passing the pressure he was getting onto his managers. Wally went on to become quite successful in running the small western branch of the company.
Wally used his experience as a model in coaching other supervisors and employees on how to report or investigate bullying by others. Wally had learned that a direct, nonjudgmental approach—that is, explaining the effects of their bullying behavior without blaming them—rather than a passive or aggressive approach, was usually the most effective and quickest way to stop bullying. Tolerating it or running from it is usually less effective, and fighting fire with fire can easily result in escalation.
In another job, an employer charged Wally with helping his organization get past three years of abusive bullying perpetrated by its former national security manager. This manager was mistakenly hired because of the halo effect he had from working at a large firm, and the company’s owner had paid dearly for not heeding the red flags before he hired this person, who turned out to be emotionally abusive to his staff.
Wally helped the company get past its recent history of psychological abuse with a supportive style of communication and good listening skills. In his behavior, he took pains to avoid any trace of the previous manager’s manner of making harsh judgments, appearing superior, accusing and blaming, setting unrealistic standards, and disregarding the negative effect his own behavior had on others, especially in stressful situations.
In dealing with instances of bullying at his new company, Wally divided the incidents into minor and major, according to their consequences. With minor bullying incidents, he took an educational and coaching approach; this involved carefully pointing out the particular problem, explaining why it could not continue, and discussing with all parties how to stop it. Major incidents were handled with a disciplinary model—a strict structure of correction of the bullying behavior and follow-up accountability for changes, with consistent progressive discipline for failures, up to and including discharge for misconduct.
With Wally’s more professional management of the company, client and employee turnover was reduced, the quality of security service improved, and bottom-line profits and employee satisfaction increased.
MAKE DO WITH MANAGING
John, Robert, Lynette, and Wally all faced different experiences as security managers at various organizations. But in their actions, they showed some key commonalities.
Their collective experiences highlight the importance of treating workplace bullying as a serious issue and the need to deal with it head-on in a professional but direct manner, rather than a passive or overly aggressive one. It also demonstrates the importance of developing a positive and professional workplace culture and learning how to spot red flags in hiring employees.
Furthermore, their cases illustrate how thoughtful approaches, including counseling, can effectively mitigate bullying. And they show how, sometimes, progressive employee discipline is needed to end the toxic behavior of bullies and harassers.
Finally, all four of these managers learned a lesson pertinent to their future: Workplace problems in the security industry can never be completely eradicated or cured, but they can be addressed in a manner that benefits the work environment. In the end, these security managers shared an unspoken success mantra: “Control the controllable, and manage the rest.”
William Cottringer, Ph.D., Certified Homeland Security (CHS) level III, is executive vice-president for employee relations for Puget Sound Security Patrol, Inc., in Bellevue, Washington, and adjunct professor of criminal justice at Northwest University.