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Make the Bully
Go Away!

What can HR do about bullies in the workplace?

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By William H. Truesdell, SPHR
© 2007 The Management Advantage, Inc.

It's likely that every person alive was bullied at one time or another while a child. Just thinking about it can bring back vivid memories of humiliation, isolation, inadequacy and loneliness. Those are not nice feelings. And, it is possible one or more people in your organization are suffering those feelings today because of a bully in the workplace.

Workplace bullying behavior exists and is not usually dealt with effectively. If you accept the thought that there MIGHT be bullies in the workplace, consider what you know about discrimination laws and labor union agreements as methods for dealing with such behavior.

Bullies are not addressed by employment discrimination laws unless they step over the line and illegally prevent their target certain employment benefits like training selection, hiring, firing, or compensation. Sometimes they do, but it is not their bullying behavior that is called into question, it is the consequence of their actions that is the focus of any complaint and remedy.

Bullies are not addressed by labor union agreements unless they violate one of the provisions of the contract like holiday selection or work schedule assignment procedures. There are lots of ways to act out bullying behavior that donít cross those lines.

So, what is a workplace bully?

It is someone who is "habitually cruel to smaller or weaker people."1 That definition is reinforced by Merriam-Webster which says a bully is "a blustering browbeating person; especially: one habitually cruel to others who are weaker." 2 Like cases of quid pro quo sexual harassment, bullying often involves an abuse of power.

State Legislation Coming?

As of April 15, 2007, eleven states were considering legislation that would give victims of workplace abuse such as taunting or yelling the right to sue for damages. Those states are Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington. Watch your local newspaper for further developments.

Why should Human Resources professionals care?

Because, according to a study done in 2007 by the Employment Law Alliance3

  • 44% of those surveyed said they have worked for a supervisor or employer who they consider abusive
  • More than half of American workers have been the victim of, or heard about supervisors/employers behaving abusively
  • 64% said that they believe an abused worker should have the right to sue to recover damages
  • Southern workers (34%) are less likely to have experience with an abusive boss than are their Northeastern (56%) and Midwestern (48%) counterparts.

Another reason HR professionals should care is because they have a really bad reputation as representatives of the employer when it comes to dealing with workplace bullies, especially when those bullies are management people. Gary Namie, Ph.D., co-founder and president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute4 says, "Never go to human resources first. They want to help but they canít."

His point is that human resource folks won't involve themselves in anything that isn't a question of compliance such as sexual harassment or race discrimination. Bullying isn't against the law, so HR people want nothing to do with it. And, sometimes, the bully is a manager...representing a dangerous interaction for an HR professional. Having a reputation for avoiding such problems is not healthy for a human resources department.

We'll explore some possible ways HR can intervene when issues involving workplace bullies rise to the surface. But first, let's go back to the beginning and see what bulling behavior looks like.

How to Recognize Bullying Behavior

According to The Institute for Management Excellence5 the following tactics of workplace bullies are at the top of the list of bad behaviors:

  • Public screaming and name calling
  • Sabotaging a personís contribution and/or reputation
  • Retaliating against someone who has registered a complaint
  • Timing mistreatment to correspond with medical or psychological vulnerability
  • Withholding resources needed for success, then blaming the target person
  • Threatening job loss, punishment
  • Discriminating so as to be illegal and potentially actionable
  • Assigning the target person to unsafe work environment or task
  • Engaging in physical aggression or threatening physical harm, including sexual aggression (This can include talking about a gun collection, hunting, or other similar implied means of aggression.)

A bully usually behaves differently toward persons of higher authority than to the target person. That is no different from the school yard bully who pushes someone to the ground and then turns to smile at the teacher standing nearby.

In today's workplace, most bullies behave in ways that are subtle, not blatantly aggressive. They have learned, like people who discriminate based on race, that little things done over a period of time are often more frightening and intimidating than would be stepping over the line of legality into a major confrontation. Bullies don't want to be caught. They don't wish to be held accountable for much of anything. Any behavior that they are called to account for will be blamed on someone else, usually the target person. They know how to explain things so they sound reasonable and logical, all the while, thinking about ways to increase the pain felt by their target.

It's not ordinarily one thing. It is usually a collection of events and interactions over a period of time that can range from a few days to months or years. A lot depends on the target's ability to withstand the onslaught of negative feelings created by such treatment.

How Can You Tell if You Have a Bully in Your Workforce?

Well, turnover is a key indicator. It is hard for an employer to retain people in an environment where a bully is actively at work hurting others. Since there are so few satisfying outcomes available to employees who find themselves targets of a bully, the most often used escape mechanism is to quit the job.

An article in a publication written for Purdue University Supervisors6 says, "Supervisors tend to be bullies in 80 percent of cases, but they are equally likely to be a man or a woman."

In one retail store of a national chain, the store manager experienced turnover of nearly 200% a year. Employees who requested transfers to other stores were blocked because the manager "couldnít afford to lose the experience while training new workers." Yet, the managerís screaming, publicly berating, and constant criticisms were behaviors that caused decent people to want to get out of the environment. When her store was scheduled for a corporate inspection, the manager literally ran around the store for days hollering at employees to "move faster," and admonishing them saying, "you better get that done fast." When the scores for the inspection were announced, it was through the grapevine and not by the manager telling those who had worked so hard what they had accomplished. The manager took all the credit and didnít even mention the results to any of her employees, let alone express her thanks. Supervisors quit. Retail clerks quit. Anyone who objected to her demands became the next target for her bullying. Work hours were cut anytime someone requested a specific day off. Retaliation took forms that appeared to be legitimate by themselves, but taken together painted a clear picture of bullying behavior. Did the store manager lose her job? Quite to the contrary. She was promoted to a position as head of another larger store because "she could produce the results corporate wanted."

Employee Illness Rates
When people feel threatened, or uncomfortable even, there is a tendency for them to avoid the environment that makes them feel that way. While income issues pull them toward work every day, Sick Leave programs give them a way to "get away" from a workplace bully. Watch the trends. Compile departmental data. Compare rates for the same period in previous years under other supervisors. Be a good detective.

Employee Satisfaction Surveys
Results from employee satisfaction surveys can also be an indicator, although instances of bullying are usually under-reported so indicators should be taken seriously. One expert in employee surveys says, "The development and maintenance of a pervasive service culture requires an intense and relentless focus throughout your organization, whether big or small. Everything the organization does can affect customer satisfaction."7

Executives are slow to accept the notion that employee surveys can yield valuable information. Probably because they don't want to know what employees have to say. Knowing makes them accountable to do something with the information. Surveys are dismissed based on the belief that they cost too much. As an intelligent HR professional you can present a cost/value-based business case showing how the survey will actually save money by allowing problems to surface before they become chronic and exorbitantly expensive.

Employee Complaints
The number of complaints received by the company's complaint-handling group is a good indicator of problems. Formal complaints are like only see the small part that sticks above the water line. There are a majority of problems lying under the surface that have not erupted into formal complaints. So any data derived from this source should be thought of as an extremely conservative indicator.

Informal complaints, like folks talking with their managers about things that are bothering them, are difficult to track statistically. This informal process of problem solving goes on every day in most organizations. Managers simply do not make a written record of most such conversations. If one problem is solved, they move on to the next problem. Often, unfortunately, management responds by dismissing complaints of bullying when they are raised by employees. Without some time spent in exploring the worker's experiences, the manager can see only a small part of the larger picture. One small instance can be easily dismissed by the manager without any guilt for brushing off an employeeís concern. "Try not to be so sensitive next time."

As HR professionals, we need to be talking with employees directly, as well as our management staff, to ask questions like, "Are you hearing anything about people feeling bullied?" If we probe the specific issue, we can often get a glimpse of what is actually going on.

Falling Productivity
Another key indicator is the productivity of workers. People who are unhappy will produce less than people who are content with their jobs. Those things can be measured. A study was done in England that showed a conservative cost calculation for a serial bully as a supervisor targeting a subordinate in a professional or semi-professional context amounted to £71,000 per annum. (That represents US$140,785 at 2007 exchange rates, and itís only one case.) Costs include the expense of replacing the worker who quits, decreased production of the worker's peers who stay with the employer and the supervisorís pay. Bullies, the study points out, usually take credit for work done by others and therefore produce little or nothing on their own. Their pay yields nothing additional to the employer for its expense.

What are the Benefits of Preventing Bullying Behavior?

Our neighbors to the North, through the Canadian Safety Council9, have outlined specific benefits of anti-bullying actions including:

  • a more peaceful and productive workplace
  • better decision making
  • less time lost to sick leave or self-defensive paperwork
  • higher staff retention
  • lower risk of legal action

The same people go on to say, "Organizations who manage people well outperform those who donít by 30 to 40 percent. Development of strong interpersonal skills at all levels is fundamental to good management and a healthy workplace." Said differently, bullies impact the "bottom line" financially.

How Can Human Resources Deal with Workplace Bullies?

Set a Standard and Enforce It
The answer is simple. Deal with bullies as you would deal with any other misbehavior in your workplace. You don't accept sexual harassment behavior. Neither should you accept bullying behavior. Deal with them in the same way.

If you don't already have one, establish a policy modeled on your policy banning harassment behavior in the workplace. Make sure every employee gets a copy of that policy when you distribute copies of all your other policies. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has a sample suggested policy on its web site. If you are a member of SHRM you can access it at SHRM - Sample Policy And, it should go without saying that, anytime you revise or add to your policies you should review them with your management attorney before implementation.

Itís No Accident

Why have courts and enforcement agencies been so harsh in requiring employers to eliminate sexual harassment from their workplaces? And, why won't homeowners' or renters' insurance policies honor claims from people who are held accountable for sexual harassment liability?

Simply said, Sexual Harassment is not an accident. It is intentional behavior. The same is true for Bullying Behavior. It is not accidental. Race, sex, religious, or age discrimination can be either intentional or accidental. However, because Sexual Harassment and Bullying Behavior are each acts of aggression, there can be no accident about either of them.

In some situations, bullying can constitute psychological assault. In California, written Injury and Illness Prevention Programs (IIPP) are required of every employer, regardless of headcount. Part of the Cal-OSHA specification for IIPP content is the identification and planning for threats to employee safety. While that obviously includes such things as fire and earthquake, it also includes workplace violence prevention, which we believe includes prevention of workplace bullying. Your state may have a similar requirement. Be sure you know what that is.

Train Managers to Detect Bullies
All managers in your organization should be trained on how to spot bullies as well as how to solicit employee input about when they experience bullying.

Encourage Employee Complaints and Take Them Seriously
It takes time to build trust with employees over how they will be treated when they complain about how a supervisor or peer is behaving. Will they be treated like children? Will their reputations be damaged with senior management if they complain? Perhaps, most importantly, will they be the subject of subtle and insidious retaliation for bringing the problem to light?

Human Resource managers must devise protections for employees who complain. Those systems or techniques must be endorsed by upper management. Keeping the issue of bullying on management agendas as a regular review item will go a long way toward that goal of protection for target employees.

Recommendations for Employers who Wish to Prevent Bullying Behavior

There are some basic suggestions we can offer to those of you who want to maintain workplace environments free from bullying behavior.

  • Establish and publish a policy denouncing bullying behavior. Explain your zero-tolerance standard for bullies just as you have a zero-tolerance standard for sexual harassment. Every employee should have the right to work in an environment free from bullies. Include your policy in your Employee Handbook. Sexual harassment is illegal. Bullying is not. It is up to the employer to equate the two problems and proclaim its lack of tolerance for either.
  • Handle complaints about workplace bullies with progressive discipline as you would a complaint of sexual harassment. Following an investigation, people who have engaged in bullying behavior may be disciplined, up to and including possible dismissal from employment.
  • Put your anti-bullying policy on the agenda of every management staff meeting your executives and managers have. If the CEO talks about it as being unacceptable and you measure how occurrences are handled, people will begin to get the message that they can't do that type of thing without some serious consequences. Those who don't get the message, you probably don't want around anyway.
  • In the old Bell System, every switching center used to have a sign over the doorway that read, "Safety is Our Most Important Job." If you have that type of sign in your workplace, put one next to it that reads, "We donít tolerate either sexual harassment or workplace bullies."

What if Senior Management Doesn't Want to Spend Money on a Non-Compliance Issue?

That, as they say, is a tough one.

There is currently no regulation that prevents employers from ignoring workplace bullying as an issue. There is no requirement that employers have policies about such behavior. There is nothing that says employers must train managers and supervisors on the subject.

If, in the end, senior management decides not to acknowledge the business wisdom of addressing this issue intelligently and in a straight forward way, there is little to do but wish them good luck on the course they have chosen.

And, if I were the HR Manager in such an organization, I think I would polish up the old resume.



1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language


3 The Employment Law Alliance is the world's largest integrated, global practice network comprised of premier, independent law firms distinguished for their practice in employment and labor law. There are member firms in all 50 U.S. states, every Canadian province and over 75 countries.



6 "Dealing with Workplace Bullies," E-Newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors,

7 Elliott Brown, Elliott Brown & Associates,



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