Earlier this week my family watched a program on bullying among teenagers, a subject that schools across the country are grappling with, as bullying takes place in school, outside of school, and in cyberspace. The program brought unsuspecting teens into a scenario where actors played the parts of two bullies and a victim. The program host and the parents of the teens observed their reactions via hidden cameras. Needless to say, a few of the parents felt extremely proud of their children for speaking up and confronting the bullies, while the majority of the parents watched their children remain silent, look away, or even laugh and encourage the bullies. It made for a great conversation with our children about what to do when you are bullied or you see someone else being bullied.
As I reflected on our family discussion, I thought about bullying among adults in the workplace and incidents I have observed and heard about involving people who use bullying tactics such as screaming, threatening, and humiliation to get their way, express their anger, or intimidate their colleagues and/or employees. As it does in the schools, bullying in the workplace creates a harmful and toxic environment and hinders everyone’s ability to be productive and fulfilled at work. So, what can be done about it? I found that many of the tips shared by experts in the TV show are relevant to addressing bullies in the workplace:
- Speak up – If you see someone being bullied, say something. Make it clear that bad behavior such as screaming, belittling, rude humor, and aggression is not acceptable – and be certain that workplace policies and accountability measures support that. If you feel you can’t confront the bully yourself, tell someone in authority. In the workplace, that may be a supervisor or Human Resources professional.
- Understand the consequences of bullying – The Dept. of Education estimates that 160,000 children stay home each day because they are afraid of being bullied. Health – both physical and emotional – is negatively impacted when bullying occurs. In the workplace, bullying can result in high stress, low morale, lack of engagement, lost input, and other damaging consequences.
- Assess your reality – School administrators, while acknowledging that bullying is a societal issue, may insist that it is not happening in their schools or is not at all tolerated in their schools. They may fail to recognize what is happening or may downplay complaints that are made. Similarly, bullying is an easy thing to ignore or deny in the workplace, even when employees may bring it to your attention, simply because it is so unpleasant and undesirable. What signs of bullying are being ignored in your workplace? Do leaders falsely believe that bullying is not taking place in their organizations?
- Set the right example – People take their cues from the environment. If bullying and bad behavior is seen among managers and outbursts are common in the workplace, then bullying will certainly continue to occur. In the TV program I watched with my family, adults who ignored the bullying behavior or condoned it made it much less likely for others to speak up and intervene. The same is true in the workplace.
- Provide support – Both those being bullied and those bullying others need support. Offer counseling, coaching, and training that teaches the appropriate behaviors and skills for dealing with difficult situations, managing anger, and building effective work relationships.
As a leader in your organization, what is your responsibility in addressing workplace bullying? We would love to hear your personal experiences of dealing with bullying in the workplace and the steps you have taken to address it.