First of all, I want to say that most situations can be resolved, even if they feel overwhelming. That being said, when people use their position of power to intimidate and browbeat others into doing work that doesn’t even belong to them, that is called bullying. There is no room for that type of workplace violence.
Bullies affect profit margins through employee retention problems, absenteeism and presenteeism (which is where they are at work physically but little else). It costs 1 1/2 to 2 times of a person’s salary to train a new person. If the turnover is 2 years, the ROI on a new hire is non-existent. If the turnover is faster, they lose money.
I know of a boss who expects his secretary to show up at work at 6 AM, to print out his agenda for the day and prepare fresh coffee for his arrival at 6:30. He expects her to stay until after he has left for the day while being available by phone after she leaves the office in case he has an idea he wants her to take notes. Any refusal is met with being called unprofessional and threats of a firing, even at 9 PM on a Sunday night. This is a perfect example of a work bully. After 4 years, he is still in his position.
#1 Listen beyond the bullying and look for the underlying fear
If you want to resolve this and keep working with them, you must squash the ulcers long enough to figure out their hot button to decide if it is within your power to reduce their fear. When their fear is under control, they become Dr. Jekyll instead of Mr. Hyde.
For example, does he preoccupy himself with costs? If so, approach everything having crunched the numbers. Fear of loss is another biggie. Besides being self-involved, bullies can also be very insecure as a rule. Yes, they like to win and be right; but many are terrified of losing face, being wrong or having a hidden agenda discovered.
In the case of the bully boss mentioned above, the people who work for him complain that he is incompetent and terrified of being found out, higher up. His strength is that he is surrounded by competent people who make him look good and they claim he is an Olympian level brown-noser to the top dogs. The company keeps him because of the results he shows them (for which he takes complete credit).
Many good employees have left because of this one boss. Those who stand up to him from day one earn his respect and he doesn’t bother them and generally finds other people to do the work he wants done. The boss has avoided strict consequences because there are too many layers between him and the decision-makers at head office in another city. They look at overall profit margins without looking too closely at office problems.
Alternatively, another previous client of mine, in another company, was faced with a very similar situation. After losing quality people in a department, (one of them had a burnout and refused to go back to his department), that boss was unceremoniously fired.
There are a couple of notable differences between the 2 organizations. The average workers in the first office earn under $100 K and there are several other departments in the building watering down the impact. The second example have much higher incomes and less departments to share the spreadsheet with. The second difference for the fired boss is that HR is within the same building and not in another city. My hypothesis is that the combination of the smaller income impacting the bottom line and the distance from being exposed to the behaviours makes it easier it is avoid detection for the first boss.
Here’s something to keep in mind when we are the victim of bullying. When we ourselves are operating from a place of fear, such as the fear of losing our job, it becomes very easy to decide that maybe we are doing something wrong or to convince ourselves that we should figure out this problem on our own. The truth is that we should:
#2 Name the behavior: Bullying
I am not talking about someone with a very strong personality compared to yours who triggers your anxiety (although there are many things to reduce that). I am talking about someone who is truly a bully. They use fear and intimidation to coerce you, they have or are bullying others. Read your employee manual for a definition.
Bullies are very quick to point out everything that’s wrong with you to trigger insecurity. They often shout at people and call them names or openly criticize their character. Please do not buy into it. People who use intimidation or destructive criticism feel justified in their aggressive behaviors because they get what they want. They will continue until they are faced with something that makes them uncomfortable.
The bully will only take ownership for their behaviors when they are faced with consequences or challenged by people in authority. They need a reason to change or reconsider their behaviors. That consequence is having a light shined on their bullying ways. So take a deep breath and calmly:
#3 Find an appropriate mediator
This is not something to do on your own. Mediators remain neutral to both parties in the hopes of finding mutual gain. At work, that is usually someone from HR or in management. Begin the conversation with the potential mediator by stating that your productivity is being directly affected by the relationship with this person. Specify that you need some help because they are bullying you. Use the correct word. Do not sugar-coat this. Be prepared with a list of specific events and witnesses.
Workplace bullying is not the responsibility of the victim to fix. It is the responsibility of the company or organization to get involved. If the victim doesn’t speak up, nothing will get done as companies cannot solve problems until identified.
Do not assume that the first person you approach will be a competent mediator. The first person is often the gate keeper with a lovely personality but little power. Go up the hierarchy armed with having memorized the anti-bullying policy.
Bonus Step: Get some support
There are two directions that dealing with a bully can go. Either you will form a united front with others who have been bullied and change the situation together. Or, while others are cowering under their desks out of fear, you will feel alone in this battle. If it is the latter, you need to feel supported at some point to protect yourself.
Having worked as a crisis interventionist I can tell you from experience that people often wait to ask for help only when it has become very complicated. They have made excuses for the bully; they convinced themselves they are somehow responsible or that they should know what to do to fix this on their own. None of that is true and if they had acted sooner, they would have been in better shape.
Having convinced themselves for a long period of time that things would get better; things end up derailing like a slow moving avalanche. It is easier than you think to become engulfed in illness such as: a clinical depression or burnout, an anxiety disorder, bleeding ulcers or some other serious physical complications due to chronic stress.
Check out your EAP with an arm’s length relationship with the company or look for someone with no relationship to get support. You deserve to maintain your health and operate at optimum productivity. Everyone benefits, you and your family AND the company’s bottom line.
Elevating confidence and happiness increases productivity, creativity and employee engagement. That is what a safe work environment can do. Make your well-being a priority for the long term. Free yourself and your company from bullies.