Strategic HR

Taming the Workplace Bully: 10 Signs Your Employees are Being Bullied

There are effective strategies employers can use to investigate complaints of workplace bullying, according to Karen Michael, Esq. of KarenMichael PLC, a presenter at SHRM’s 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans.


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A bully is a “personality trait and leadership style unto itself” said Michael.  And because a bully can often convince his or her workplace target that complaining about the bully would result in dire consequences, a targeted employee will typically quit before reporting the bullying behavior.  In addition, there are no federal or state laws that prohibit workplace bullying in the public and private sector.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), workplace bullying is four times more prevalent than unlawful harassment.  A WBI survey revealed that 53.5 million people have experience bullying at work.  Although the survey also shows that 62% of workplace bullies are men, in Michael’s experience, the “textbook bully” is a woman between the ages of 40 and 60.

This difference may be accounted for because men who bully may be more often reported for sexual harassment.  And, Michael noted, workplace bullying of female employees by a female superior seems to be a greater pattern.  Indeed, WBI statistics show that 80% of the time women bullies target women in the workplace.

Nonetheless, because the bullying employee is often very good at his or her job, many employers (up to 25% according to WBI) will deny that the person is a bully, or otherwise discount or rationalize the bully’s behavior.

Michael indicated that this also may be because a bully can be very charming and deceptive; and may have lied to his or her superiors about the targeted employee, so that if the targeted employee ever complains, the superiors will conclude that the complaints are because the employee is trying to protect his or her job and/or make trouble for the bully.

Michael provided 10 signs that an employee is being bullied:

  1. Work means misery—to the point of becoming physically ill before the start of a workweek.
  2. Constant criticism despite the employee’s history of objective competence and even excellence.
  3. Lots of yelling—an overt bully frequently screams at, insults, or humiliates the targeted employee in front of others.
  4. Remembering the employee’s mistakes—and constantly referring to them for no constructive reason.
  5. Gossip and lies—a covert office bully is more likely to spread destructive gossip and lies about an employee and his or her performance.
  6. Not invited to lunch or meetings—this can make the employee feel isolated.
  7. Sabotage and/or unreasonable or impossible expectations—this ensures the targeted employee fails at work.
  8. Impossible schedule—includes last minute changes to an employee’s schedule.
  9. Stolen work—a bully will take credit for the work of the target.
  10. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality—the bully will be vicious in private but charming in front of witnesses.

Michael suggested that proactive employers use their policies, such as a code of conduct or a policy against workplace violence or disruptive behavior to create a framework for disciplining bullies in the workplace.

When an employer receives a complaint of bullying, it should begin its investigation by reviewing documents such as personnel files, exit interviews, performance reviews, and information on turnover.  Because a bully always has a target and a sidekick (someone who helps the bully perpetuate the bullying behavior), Michael advised attendees to try to identify these employees, although it can be challenging to do so.

She suggests trying to put witnesses at ease when interviewing them.  Generally, they have no confidence in the system—with good reason.  Asking open-ended questions and asking witnesses to provide ratings on a scale from 1 to 10 for morale in the department and then his or her job personally.

In both cases, Michael says, the targeted employee will say “zero.”  When interviewing the alleged bully, Michael suggests asking if there’s anyone who would have a reason to make allegations against the bully.  Nine times out of 10, says Michael, the bully will name the target.

An employer’s investigation results should be balanced, taking into consideration the good work that the bully does as well as the damage the bully has inflicted on the workforce.  It can be difficult because the bully may have already manipulated everyone from HR to the CEO, so it’s important to present a balanced report that focuses on the standards required under the employer’s workplace conduct policy.

Joan FarrellJoan S. Farrell, JD, is a Legal Editor for BLR’s human resources and employment law publications. Ms. Farrell writes extensively on the topics of workplace discrimination, unlawful harassment, retaliation, and reasonable accommodation. She is the editor of the ADA compliance manual—ADA Compliance: Practical Solutions for HR. Before coming to BLR, Ms. Farrell worked as in-house counsel for a multistate employer where she represented management in administrative matters and provided counseling on employment practices.

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