Tried-and-True Ways to Deal with a Workplace Bully

Real stories from companies around the nation

By Dana Wilkie Jun 30, 2016
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Using case studies from her own experience, civility coach Catherine Mattice, SHRM-SCP, recently offered HR professionals advice for spotting bullies, changing their behavior, and showing victims and managers how to stand up to them.

Mattice, a consul¬tant with Civility Partners in La Mesa, Calif., spoke at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C. More than 15,000 people attended the June 19-22 event.

“Bullies are not psychopaths,” Mattice said. “Research is finding that bullies just are not socially aware. They lack empathy and communication skills. They often recognize they’re perceived a certain way … but when you give them the goods and say, ‘This is really how people perceive you,’ they’re often pretty shocked [and] … aren’t aware how much hurt they’ve caused.”

Mattice started her concurrent session by making a distinction between bullying and conflict. She said bullying creates a psychological power imbalance, causes harm—such as stress, fear, anxiety and sleeplessness—and is repetitive, typically occurring at least once a week for a minimum of six months. It includes:

• Aggressive communication tactics, such as sending nasty e-mails, standing too close to others or harsh finger-pointing.

• Humiliation, caused by social isolation, pranks designed to make the victim look foolish or pointing out mistakes in public.

• Manipulation, which often isn’t as visible as other bullying behaviors, Mattice said, because it tends to occur “under the radar: Giving someone so much work they can’t complete it. Impossible deadlines. Changing deadlines so a person becomes confused. Giving poor performance evaluations even though the person is a good performer.”

Mattice told the story of a woman who complained that her new manager had given her double the caseload of her peers. When the woman told her manager she couldn’t complete the cases without an assistant, her manager refused to provide one or to lighten her workload. The new manager “probably felt threatened by an employee who had been there so long,” Mattice said. “Come performance evaluation time, [the manager] said, ‘You’re failing. I’m recommending you for a demotion and a pay cut.’ That’s manipulation.”

Convincing the CEO There’s a Problem


Auditing employees can help prove to upper management that supervisors who seem to get results may actually be bullying their employees. Some sample questions to ask during such an audit, she said, might include:

• Have you ever been bullied at work?

• What forms did the bullying take?

• On a scale of 1 to 5, how often do you experience [insert bullying behaviors here]?

• How is your job performance affected by these behaviors?

Mattice once worked with a small manufacturing company where the HR manager tried to convince the company CEO that one supervisor was bullying others, but the CEO didn’t buy it. When Mattice stepped in, she conducted an audit of all employees.

Even though there was little turnover at the company, Mattice discovered from the audit that more than half the workforce was thinking about leaving the company. When she presented her findings to the CEO, “there were now consequences,” she said. “The CEO knew this was a problem, and he said, ‘This has to change.’ ”

The bully received management and leadership coaching. Other supervisors—who were typically promoted to their jobs without any management training—began receiving training. A conflict mediator ironed out tensions between the bully-manager and his sales force. The company, which had never had a performance management system, put one in place.

Other training that Mattice has found helpful includes:

• Educating workers and managers on what bullying looks like.

• Showing victims how to stand up for themselves.

• Urging those who witness bullying to come forward.

• Showing bullies how to listen and give feedback in a way that isn’t aggressive.

• Showing leaders how to be assertive with bullies. “Sit them down and tell them, ‘Our expectation is that we treat one another with respect. I see you do that in these situations, but not in these other situations. How will we fix this? What resources do you need?’ ”

Mattice played a clip from the movie “Horrible Bosses” to illustrate her point. In the clip, actor Kevin Spacey plays a manager who confronts actor Jason Bateman with a time-stamped video showing Bateman’s character coming to work two minutes late. While showing up late may be a valid concern, Mattice said, Spacey’s character comes across as a bully because of “the way he communicates. It’s the feeling that Jason Bateman is being put down and humiliated and not trusted because [Spacey’s character] is videotaping him.”

At a nonprofit organization where bullying was prevalent, Mattice asked managers to conduct an exercise at their next meeting: Ask employees to think about how they wanted to be treated by peers and supervisors, then write the responses on a whiteboard. Workers, she said, began “to see that everybody had the same answers: ‘We want to be treated with dignity, we want people to appreciate us, we want to laugh once in a while, we want people to tell us if they have a problem with us rather than going around us.’ You will feel a change in the room as people start to realize, ‘Hey, we all want to be treated the same.’ ”

After the exercise, she said, she helped the nonprofit’s leaders develop three corporate values: communicate with respect; trust your colleagues; and engage in teamwork.

“The two worst bullies quit after two months,” she said. “This wasn’t fun [for them] anymore. [They said,] ‘I think I’ll go bully someplace else.’ ”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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