With heightened anxiety caused by the coronavirus crisis, bullying is poised to rise in the workplace. Insecure adults may taunt and tease others in an exercise of power through humiliation, and it's not a far stretch of the imagination to see how this could lead to a hostile work environment claim.
Any incident in which a worker is abused, threatened, intimidated, teased or ridiculed could be considered intrusive and harassing behavior, and such emotional and psychological violence should be taken very seriously. The aggression may be verbal, physical (as in blocking someone's way), or visual (as in leering or staring someone down). The challenge with bullying, however, is that because it can be subtle and easily denied, it can be difficult to prove, especially when peers cover for one another or witnesses refuse to get involved.
Research shows that a bully is just as likely to be a man as a woman. In the workplace, the bullying tends to come from bosses most of the time. In today's COVID-19 world, however, it's becoming more prevalent among co-workers who disagree on wearing face masks and social distancing, and they view these practices as political statements and personal choices, rather than practical health care guidelines.
When a staff member complains to you, the manager, about feeling stripped of dignity or otherwise publicly humiliated by a peer, you may very well have a bullying situation on your hands. Bullying in the workplace destroys morale for those who witness it and may expose your company to severe financial damages.
Employees will oftentimes fear going directly to their supervisor or HR to complain about a peer for fear of retaliation. Even if no formal complaints are made by the staff member who was subjected to the harmful behavior, proactively addressing any incidents as soon as they surface is important:
Butch, I called this meeting with you this afternoon because I'm concerned about your conduct during this morning's staff meeting. I saw you engage in something I would call a "public humiliation session" with Eddie, and from what I could see, your attacks were intended to strip him of his dignity in front of the rest of the group. Can you picture the meeting and specifically what I'm talking about?
At this point, Butch may launch into an all-out defense to justify his actions: "Eddie did one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. He called a client on the phone and said—" Your best response is to stop him right there:
Butch, this isn't about the merits of your argument, and I certainly don't need a justification of any sort for your behavior. Whatever Eddie did or didn't do is not why we're here. We're here about you and the perception you created in my eyes and in others' eyes that your behavior was menacing, mean-spirited and personal.
Let me be clear: Bullying your peers for any reason and under any circumstances violates company policy. More significantly, it makes me lose faith in your ability to contribute to this organization positively and in your ultimate suitability for the position you're in.
Here's how I see it and how I feel you should see it from now on: Stripping people of their dignity or humiliating them publicly is no longer an option for you. Simply take that tool out of your toolbox and throw it away. It's not useful here or at any other organization where you work for the rest of your career.
Further, you're responsible for your own perception management. Perception is reality until proven otherwise, and you're responsible for creating a friendly and welcoming environment, just like I am and every other member of this company is. Your role is not to judge others, make them feel like less of a person, humiliate them or publicly humiliate them. In fact, that's the opposite of what your role is, which potentially makes you net negative and a liability to the organization.
If I had to describe your behavior today, I would say that you humiliated, overruled, ignored and isolated your team member in front of his peers. That's bad for morale, needless to say, and creates a culture based on fear. As a company, we pay for that over time in terms of lost efficiency, turnover, absenteeism, and unnecessary separation packages and lawsuits. In short, this morning you created a tremendous liability for our company, both in terms of stress-related health and safety exposure, as well as in the potential for a hostile work environment claim, which violates our organization's anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. I'm here to make sure that something like that never happens again. Am I clear? Good.
I'm choosing not to put this in a written warning at this point, Butch. I want you to consider this a coaching and mentoring moment to help raise your awareness, because something like this, if left unaddressed, could hold you back for the rest of your career. You've got too much potential to let this tragic flaw get in your way, and I hope you'll always think back on this meeting and appreciate the time we're sharing right now to help you readjust your approach to building strong teams, selfless leadership and having others' backs. Just know that if I ever again have to address this with you, it will be in the form of formal progressive discipline. Do I have your commitment that we'll never have to have a conversation like this again? Excellent. Thank you very much.
OK, you threw the book at him, yet by not giving him a written warning, you let him off fairly easily. That's certainly your right, especially when addressing something this serious for the first time. Just be sure to keep close tabs on Butch and his team members to make sure no further flare-ups arise. In addition, jot down the highlights of this conversation, as well as the date, place and time so you can refer to this information should the need arise. Nip bullying in the bud, no matter the cause or reason, and be on the lookout for a higher level of sustained aggression in today's anxious workplace.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and author of 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire; 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems; 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees; and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. This article is adapted from 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees (Amacom/HarperCollins Leadership, 2nd ed., 2019).