Learning & Development

5 Actions HR Leaders Can Take to Stop Bullying Behavior at Work

Since the pandemic, most organizations are reporting an increase in bullying – in the office and online. According to a Workplace Bullying Institute survey in 2021, just a year into the pandemic, workplace bullying rose to 30% of employees directly experiencing it and 43% of those working online. This has caught most people by surprise; they often don’t know how to respond and either over-react or under-react.

People often feel isolated by bullying behavior and worry that everyone else is becoming a bully, so they fear becoming everyone’s target. However, most people are not engaged in bullying behavior. Research indicates that a small percentage of people online create most of the hostility, but they are much louder now and have a much more significant negative impact. So, don’t be intimidated. Here are five actions that can help.

1. BIFF Responses

Encourage using the BIFF communication method to respond to hostile or misinformed emails, texts, and letters from bullies or anyone. BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. Brief means that most responses can be one or two paragraphs, without responding point by point to each negative comment the first writer has made. Informative means including only straight information without arguments, opinions, emotions, defenses, or anything else. Friendly means just a friendly greeting to set the tone (“Thank you for letting me know your concerns” or “Thank you for responding to my request.”) Firm doesn’t mean harsh; just end the hostile or misinformed conversation without any hooks to keep it going by the other person.

BIFF responses help you avoid over-reacting by slinging mud back at the other person, but they also help you avoid making no response, which may imply weakness. Often, a matter-of-fact BIFF is best at stopping bullying in writing.

2. The Respectful Meeting Policy

Much of today’s work is accomplished at meetings. More often, we see bullying catch people by surprise at meetings, either personally attacking the chairperson or other meeting members. The Respectful Meeting Policy says that the meeting chairperson can admonish the bullying person to stop and speak and act respectfully. If the person doesn’t, the chairperson can temporarily halt the meeting to talk to the person, have the person removed, or end the meeting. The other members present shall support the chairperson in making these decisions. Perhaps a small sign can be posted explaining this policy or a brief note included in a meeting agenda.

3. Talk to Someone

Encourage employees to talk to someone if they are experiencing bullying so they do not become isolated, depressed, sick, or otherwise. Feeling alone and unsupported can lead to quitting or reduced productivity, which can spread throughout a team. Talking to a friend may help you gain self-confidence. Talking to HR, another supervisor, or a union representative may help get some appropriate intervention.

4. Encourage Bystanders

Bystanders can often help if they see bullying going on. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. They can just say, “That’s enough, Joe!” Or: “That’s enough, Jane!” Also, if it seems like two people bullying each other, it can be hard to tell if one is a reasonable person just defending him or herself against bullying or if both are bullies. In either case, a bystander can say loudly: “You both made your points!” This has succeeded in stopping the angry conversation in several situations. Many people are afraid to speak up because they think it has to be a big confrontation, but by simply using a brief comment, such as one of these, you can get the person’s attention and help keep the conflict small.

5. Post a Sign

Post a sign saying to treat employees, managers, and customers with respect. More agencies and government offices are doing this today to discourage angry customers from verbally attacking employees, especially when dealing with the public and complaints. Signs can say such things as: “We want to help you. However, abusive language or behavior toward our employees will not be tolerated!” This puts people on notice and reminds them to control themselves. This slows down or stops some bullying behavior. The idea is that we’re all in this together now, so we need to pay attention to how we treat each other, even when we’re frustrated.

In short, bullies lack self-awareness and self-restraint. They may have been born this way, learned bullying from an abusive childhood, or were indulged and tolerated as children with bullying behavior. Therefore, their bullying is often automatic and a part of their personality. They often think that their behavior is normal and necessary and, therefore, don’t stop themselves. So, those nearby need to stop them.

These tips can be used by anyone in almost any situation. Sometimes, those engaged in bullying can learn to stop themselves after receiving some coaching or realizing that the work environment is becoming more assertive about stopping bullying. As more people learn to spot bullying, set limits on it, and impose consequences when necessary, everyone will grow more comfortable, and productivity should improve as well. We’re all together in this. No individual should feel alone.   

Bill Eddy is the author of Our New World of Adult Bullies: How to Spot Them – How to Stop Them and the Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute based in San Diego, California. He trains lawyers, judges, mediators, and therapists throughout the United States and a dozen other countries in managing high-conflict family, workplace, and legal disputes. He is also the author of over 20 books and manuals and has a popular blog on PsychologyToday.com.

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