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Workplace Lessons from the Campaign Trail

by Margaret DiBianca

Politics isn’t a career for the thin-skinned. “Getting the goods” on one’s opponent often seems like a strategic tactic. Candidates who engage in that “strategy” look for harmful information, and then, when the time is right, maybe at a rally or mid-debate, the goods are slung like mud in the general direction of the targeted opponent.

Long after the polls close, the beat(ing) goes on
According to some, the recent presidential primaries have included their fair share of sticks and stones. Candidates from both parties have been criticized for engaging in personal attacks against their opponents. And while the candidates have seemed to weather the attacks, the average worker is less likely to survive a verbal assault so effortlessly. Instead, personality conflicts and infighting in the workplace can lead to major problems. Savvy employers understand the real economic value in learning how to prevent, identify, and stop workplace bullying.

Divided by party lines
“Bully” and “jerk” aren’t synonymous terms. The basic difference is ignorance. Jerks tend to be oblivious to the way they treat others and the impact their words and behavior have. Bullies, on the other hand, are very aware of the impact their words and conduct have on others. In fact, the whole point of being a bully is to assert power over another. Without identifiable impact, the bully is quite unsuccessful.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (targets) in the form of verbal abuse, offensive behavior that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, and work sabotage designed to prevent targets from getting their work done.”

Once delineated from its close cousin, the jerk, the bully can be profiled as one of many types. The two most common are what I’ll call the local councilman type and the senator’s wife type. Employers need to be aware of the bullying behaviors typical of each type.

Audio Conference: Busting Workplace Bullies: Reduce the Legal Risks of Abusive Behavior

Local councilman type of bully
The local councilman’s political aspirations are lofty, though currently unfulfilled. He may not hold a seat on any important committee or have any power players on speed dial. But to him, that’s a temporary situation. He is focused and driven. His only goals are to win and be seen as a winner.

In the workplace, the local councilman type of bully is an employee who believes he can gain recognition and achieve success by beating the dickens out of any perceived competition standing in his way. To ensure that his rise to the top is unimpeded, he simply steps on anyone who has the potential to outpoll him. His target is usually the smarter, quicker, and better-dressed junior councilman — in other words, the “new guy.”

Senator’s wife type of bully
The senator’s wife doesn’t have the aspirations of the young councilman. She is resigned, for better or worse, to stay exactly where she is. She is always impeccably groomed and has great social skills, and she never, ever employs politically incorrect terminology, even in the most heated debate.

In the workplace, this type of bully usually takes the form of a nonsupervisory employee who has been in her position or with the company for a particularly long time. She isn’t using her quips and dirty looks in an attempt to change her position in the workplace or to edge out the other candidates. Instead, she wants to be sure that she doesn’t lose her foothold and fall in the ratings. She bullies to prevent others from displacing her as the favorite. Her target is not her direct reports — they are invisible to her. Instead, the senator’s wife targets her peers and sometimes those above her in the hierarchy.

Campaigns don’t come cheap
Workplace bullying by the local councilman and the senator’s wife has costly effects on business. Managers are less likely to be the target of a bully but are affected in other, indirect ways. Employers might be surprised to learn about the broad impact of the indirect and direct effects of bullying.

Some of the most obvious effects are on the health of the target. Targets of workplace bullying are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, chronic stress, high blood pressure, and increased risk of alcohol abuse. Some effects are less obvious but equally important. Targets of bullying, as well as nontarget employees who witness bullying, are shown to become less willing to assist others at work, less creative and analytical, and more inclined to act abusively toward others.

Those direct effects manifest into indirect effects on the “bottom line.” The health effects of bullying can result in increased workers’ compensation and disability benefits claims. Absenteeism rates also go up, leading to decreased productivity. And not surprisingly, targets of bullying are more likely to quit just to avoid the abuse. Higher turnover rates mean more lost productivity as well as the costs incurred as HR has to advertise for, recruit, interview, and train new employees.

Hiding behind those porcelain veneers are the fangs of a predator
Your best approach for dealing with bullies is to prevent them from entering the workplace to begin with. Use of behavioral interviewing — asking candidates about how they would react to specific situations — is a good place to start. It also helps to involve peers and direct reports in the interview process because they’re more likely to pick up the “bullying vibes.” But what can you do if a bully made it past the front-line defense and is lurking in your workplace?

  • First, take any bullying complaint just as seriously as a harassment complaint. The potential legal implications are the same — if a claim gets before a jury, there will be little sympathy for a workplace tolerant of bullying behavior.
  • Second, get an outside opinion. This may be especially important when the bully holds a high-ranking position in the company and with the senator’s wife, who is a longtime employee with loyal supporters. If you don’t want to be the “bad guy,” you can hire a consultant or use your employee assistance program to confidentially investigate. Employees are more likely to be forthcoming with a true independent.
  • Third, follow through. When an employee is identified as a bully, he should be disciplined and, if the behavior persists, terminated. Whether or not the bully may be a good performer shouldn’t influence that decision. Perhaps the most important thing you can do as an employer is to address the problem. Ignoring bullies or pretending they have no impact on the workplace is a sure- fire strategy for campaign defeat.