Bullying for Leaders

Bullying and harassment are defined as any repeated, unwanted and unreasonable behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. Bullying should never be taken lightly. It is incredibly serious. 

In Australia, there are national and state-based laws that apply to bullying and harassment.  Fair Work includes the following types of behaviour in its definition of bullying behaviour:

  • Aggression or intimidation
  • Teasing, practical jokes or ‘initiation ceremonies’
  • Spreading of malicious rumours
  • Pressuring someone to behave inappropriately
  • Excluding someone from work or work-related social events, or
  • Unreasonable work expectations (including offering too little work and work that is below someone’s skill level.)

It is important though, that as a leader you appreciate bullying does not include dealing with poor performance or addressing poor behaviour.

Bullying behaviour is not always obvious though – it does happen in the workplace without others being aware of it. Nevertheless, as an employer you have a legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace. Establishing good practice to protect your employees from bullying – and immediately addressing any instances reported to you – is part of that obligation.

Good practice means that you: 

  • Ensure that all employees know what bullying is and that it is not acceptable. This should be addressed at induction and followed up again in team meetings
  • Respond to and resolve any complaints that are made, and take disciplinary action against any person found to be bullying. 

As a leader, it is important that you grasp the importance of the following key points about bullying:

  • The impact on the individual can be devastating, and can last months or even years after the event. The effects can escalate from hurt feelings, through to loss of self-esteem and even to suicide.   
  • Bullying is rarely an isolated incident. Bullying can stem from a variety of reasons but it is almost always a pattern of behaviour. You’re rarely just dealing with two people with opposing views. A bully will create a bullying culture around themselves and it will make work so painful that it will ruin your organisational culture and then your business.   
  • It’s your responsibility to protect your team from bullying. It is a legal and moral responsibility.

© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human  

It can take years of experience to deal well with bullying. This is especially true when dealing with experienced bullies, who have become expert at disguising their behaviour. So, here’s some advice from leaders we’ve worked with who have had extensive experience in combatting this unacceptable form of behaviour.

As a leader you have a legal and moral responsibility to protect your team from bullying. To fulfil that responsibility, you need to be able to answer the following three questions:

  1. What does bullying looks like?
  2. Where does it comes from?
  3. How do you handle it when it’s called out?

What does bullying look like?

Contrary to popular opinion, bullying that involves shirt fronting and head-butting accounts for only 25% of instances. But it’s easy to spot and easy to stop. The remaining 75% are more subtle and potentially a whole lot more damaging to the victim. 

Bullying looks like one person gradually using their power over another to make them feel intimidated, humiliated, degraded, or offended. A bully will test their power over them very gradually – a word here or there, a text, a small exclusion from coffee with most of the team, an inside joke that they just don’t get, moving a deadline forward so they feel rushed or feel “behind”, providing feedback that’s not specific but creates doubts, delivering a series of compliments to the rest of the team in their presence.

These little behaviours are shaken off by most people. They might not even notice them. Or think they’re imagining it. They try harder, more determined to get on the right side of the bully.

As the behaviours escalate and/or become more prevalent, they start to be more obvious.  The “single text” becomes every weekend, or every night, or multiple times over a weekend. The exclusion from coffee becomes exclusion from the team drinks because, “I’m so sorry, but I didn’t see you that day”. The isolated moving deadline becomes all deadlines moving forward to cater for the person’s perceived poor delivery or less than capable work.  The feedback becomes criticism. Work is taken off the individual and given to others.

The bully “asks around for feedback”, meaning that you see the bully taking every other member of the team into meeting rooms, except them. Lots of doors are closed, and people are told ‘not to mention it’. The whole team can feel the person pushed to the outside. They can start to feel sorry for the person or personally guilty because they feel they’re helping it happen.

There are non-specific conversations between the bully and others in public meetings that create doubt about the person. “Have you seen such and such with their peers? Do you think they’re a team player?” Nothing specific, but enough for people to remember there was a problem between the person and the team.

The person might not be given all the information they need to do their work well. Their manager takes their work, and makes it their own.

And, as the behaviour escalates, the person being bullied gradually starts to understand it. They start doubting themselves, and they need to talk to someone about it but they’re conscious of not wanting to be perceived as weak or negative or unable to work with people.

Then they start trying to defend themselves by writing notes: keeping a record of what’s happening. It can become whole folders of little incidences. They start responding to emails in an inordinate amount of detail, explaining the situation, for fear that the email could be part of a systematic campaign against them. They start asking team-mates whether there are functions coming up, and trying not to appear paranoid.

And that’s what bullying actually looks like in real life. A subtle build of bad behaviour. A subtle decrease in confidence and self-assurance, until the person is left with emotional pain and potential psychological damage.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, statistically, by the time a complaint is made, it’s usually been happening for a year. The additional factor is that it won’t only be against one person. A bully is usually a bully to many people. In many cases, they’ve already squeezed a few people into resignation or on to stress leave before you receive your first complaint.

When you suspect bullying, look for ALL the data elements across your workplace. They may include: 

  • Increasing instances of sick leave across the team
  • Wellness in the team falling away
  • An ‘in’ and ‘out’ group at team meetings
  • Stress leave cases
  • Whispering in the workplace, closed door meetings, and people left outside the meetings
  • Unexpected changes in performance. Someone going from being a great performer to suddenly under-performing.
  • A number of resignations from long term employees
  • New employees only lasting a few weeks
  • Unexpected redundancies, unrelated to business turn-down
  • Exit interviews revealing that “things have changed” or “leadership is different than it used to be”
  • A bullying complaint
  • A number of bullying complaints

If you’re looking at any few or more of these elements together, then you’re looking at a culture of bullying. It’s more than likely already the topic of lunchtime conversations and late night phone calls among your team. By the time you deal with it you’re already weighing in late.

Where does it comes from?

It is often a surprise to know that bullies are rarely the big tough guys. Research tells us that bullies, right from a young age, are people who lack self-confidence and have serious insecurity issues. They may have a delusional view of their own importance, becoming frustrated when people don’t treat them according to this perspective.

They then seek to use their control to “bend” people to a way of behaving that affirms their self-belief, or to at least present themselves to those around them as powerful people.

There is a wealth of evidence about children who bully. They are often witnesses or victims of physical or verbal abuse at home, and insensitive to the feelings of others. If the bully reaches adulthood unchecked, they’ve usually become very effective at hiding their behaviour to all but the most experienced eye. (Hence we look at the impact of the behaviour rather than trying to diagnose the bully. i.e., “What is happening to the people around them?”).

In dealing with bullies, it is important to know that they are probably insecure. This means the usual way of dealing with conflict is more difficult.

Additionally, you need to own your own potential impact on an environment that enables or helps create bullies. For example, if you’ve done any of the following, you’ve made the business ripe for bullies:

  • Not been clear on a culture of support, inclusion and generosity. If the expectations are not clear, people make up the rules themselves.
  • Recruited people into leadership roles who have low self-confidence. Without personal self-confidence, they’ll try to use “power” or “title” to pull rank on people, having them yield to their leadership
  • Withdrawn required resources and, in doing so, placed people under undue pressure to work in a manner that extends pressure to the whole team
  • Recruited someone from outside your business (and business culture) with an explicit mandate to “shake things up”
  • Set strategies or plans that could not be achieved working under normal conditions, and therefore set expectations that “whatever it takes” was fine with you   
  • Given one of your leadership team free reign under your authority. People quickly accept that they have no boundaries, or checks and balances, so can act as they see fit. 
  • Put a leader in place without sufficient capability to lead, especially if you have a unique context. For example, we’re seeing more and more leaders who lack sufficient training in dealing with remote or flexible workplaces, act out or bully in order to exert control in those environments. 

It’s also important to be clear that there are seldom any common characteristics among people being bullied. Unlike in children, where, although not attributing the cause of the bullying to anyone outside of the bully themselves, we do often look for shyness or difference in the child being bullied. An adult bully will take on all sorts of people. There is rarely a pattern, other than with the bullies themselves. They create an environment around themselves that is unhealthy for most people.

How do you handle it when it’s called out?

The most important thing you need to do with bullying is to do something! Yes, any action will be uncomfortable and any investigation will make people feel bad. But by its very definition you’re already dealing with a bad situation and the breakdown of relationships. That’s never good.

So, when you receive a complaint, follow our 10 point action plan:

  1. Understand the details. If the complaint is in writing, make sure the details are there. If it’s verbal, take notes.
  2. If the complaint involves, or is being directed towards you, immediately step back from the situation and involve a third party. In a big company, call the team with responsibility for resolving these issues. In a small company, consider calling a third party to ensure arm’s length from the situation.  (There are specialist workplace relations experts and also lawyers who can help you here. We’ve noted some companies at the end of this section).
  3. Decide whether the situation requires measures to minimise risk or further harm. If this is the case, then erring on the side of caution to ensure a safe workplace, separate the two people involved. If the situation involves one of your own direct reports, step back and immediately put a second leader between you and the person who has complained. Do not talk to the “in between” leader about the case.
  4. Look at the whole picture. Look at all the data elements listed above (sick leave, stress leave, resignations, etc).
  5. Decide whether the issue is small enough to be resolved between two directly involved parties or whether you need to investigate formally.
  6. Advise the person, or people, who made the complaint whether you’ll be proceeding with an investigation and, if so, who will be investigating. Set a timeframe so they are clear on what to expect.
  7. If it’s a small issue, talk to those involved. Depending on the outcome of these conversations, you may wish to : mediate a conversation between both people; coach one person or the other on the expected way to deal with people, or lead people; discipline the person and advise them that this behaviour cannot be repeated.
  8. Investigation. If it’s a bigger issue, and you move to investigate it yourself, use the template (Bullying investigation) to move through the process. If you elect to bring in an external party, do so quickly. Given the seriousness of bullying, and the fact that many bullied people don’t make a complaint until after many months of suffering, anything longer than a week from the time of receiving the complaint is probably too long. Move fairly, transparently and quickly. Nothing impacts workplace culture as badly as an unresolved bullying claim.
  9. Advise the complainant of progress. Tell your employee what the investigation or conversations have uncovered, and what action was taken. They need closure. They didn’t seek to be bullied, or feel bullied, and they’ll want that chapter of their life finished so they can get back to work and move forward with their life. They want to go home and tell their family and friends, (who will have lived through this episode with your employee for some months before they made a formal complaint) that you’ve done the right thing and that it’s been resolved.
  10. Remember that you’re holding people’s psychological well-being in your hands. The first step in living up to this responsibility is investigating and putting a stop to bullying behaviour. The next step is caring for the person or people who have been bullied. It’s not enough to “hope they’re OK”. You may need to offer professional counselling or, at a minimum, ongoing conversations where they can vent a little more. Follow up in a few weeks, then in a few months, to check that they are OK. Without turning yourself into the resident psychologist, acknowledge that there has been an impact on this person which can take time for them to process and resolve.    

fall into these traps when dealing with complaints of bullying:

  • Don’t turn it into a “he said, she said” situation. As discussed, bullying is often systemic, so deal with the whole. Isolating the person who complained often escalates the bullying and inflames the situation. 
  • Don’t turn into a detective. That means no secret meetings or collecting information from uninvolved sources. Maintain your own leadership style and integrity.
  • Don’t collect complaints and leave a set of complaints unresolved. It takes one claim for the team to look at you, and two for them to decide you’re not going to do the right thing and create a safe workplace for them. By claim number three, no one will confide in you again.

Remember that above all, you are seeking to resolve the issue. If it’s small enough, you’re aiming to get people working well together again. If it’s big, you need to determine what has happened and what your action will be. If a person has bullied others, it will be very difficult to keep them in your team. If you elect to do so, even with committed coaching you’re taking on a level of responsibility for their behaviour that requires you to run very close to them. Your decision will depend on what culture you want to foster.

If you want a great culture then no-one on your team – leader or otherwise – can be a bully.

© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

Unfortunately, becoming an expert in how to deal with bullying comes from experience. The more cases you’ve seen, the more you know what to look for.

While most bullying behaviour is displayed by the person with organisational power, i.e. the boss, towards those they control, it can also originate from within teams: peers can bully peers. All the same behaviours and rules described above are equally applicable to the peer bully. Perhaps they create a small posse, or clique around them to strengthen their power, but the behaviours are common, and the requirement to deal with it deserves equal weight. 

Legally, there’s a wealth of material on-line, much of it provided by Fair Work and Safe Work Australia. Some of the most useful includes:

Safe Work Australia

Specifically for bosses –

Specifically for workers –

Fair Work

Human Rights Commission

The Human Rights information is a particularly good summary if you’re dealing with bullying claimed on the grounds of discrimination (e.g. gender, sexual orientation, age, race, religion, or disability).

Psychologically, there’s also a host of information. Here are some articles we found particularly useful.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2014/03/12/bust-workplace-bullies-and-clear-conflict-in-3-essential-steps/#19de4fba188b    (Note: that this article also talks about things you can do to short-circuit bullying. 

Then there is the idea that there are specific actions an individual takes to encourage bullying that we find somewhat dubious. But it’s worth reading about how a culture can help bullies thrive, and there are also some good real life examples of bullying in this article.

Legally, there are is also good advice available from most legal firms when a situation escalates beyond resolution in the workplace. We don’t endorse any particular legal firm and recommend you reference check any company before engaging them. 

We also strongly suggest you read the Employee’s information on bullying. Having an appreciation of both sides of the issue means you can offer support in getting to the speediest and best possible resolution. 

© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

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