I remember my first encounter with a bully – we’ll call him Paul Bugbee. He chased a neighborhood friend of mine home from school for two years, shouting destructive words, despite his parents’ pleas with the school and Bugbee’s parents. What changed the pattern? My brother, who even at the tender age of nine was more than up to the task of making sure Bugbee regretted his impulse to bully. Even with my brother’s help, though, the humiliation of being bullied took years to overcome.
Fast forward to 2016, and bullying is alive and well. We’ve all read news stories about bullying, most in the context of kids in school and stories that are endless in social media channels. Some – the case where a Florida teen committed suicide after being bullied in cyberspace by as many as 15 classmates – seem incomprehensible. Even more disturbing, the two principal bullies’ parents refused to cooperate with the school and police. What parent could let such behavior go unchecked? Who could do that to another person? Who could be that malicious and destructive?
It turns out a lot of people are that destructive and malicious. And it also turns out bullying doesn’t end when we graduate. Bullies grow up too and go on to hold jobs. Each of us probably works with or has in the past at least one.
Employers and managers need to be sensitive to the effects of bullying, and ready to step in. Bullying in the workplace and in cyberspace doesn’t always get much attention in the media – but maybe it should.
A recent study by VitalSmarts, a leadership consultancy founded by David Maxwell, author of the excellent book Crucial Conversations, polled nearly 3,000 people on the topic of workplace bullying. A stunning 96% of respondents indicated they’d been bullied in the workplace. Other chilling statistics: 62% of bullying came in the form of sabotaging work and/or reputation; 52% in ‘browbeating, threats and intimidation’, and 4% in actual physical assault. And we’re not even talking about sexual harassment in the workplace.
Despite EEOC legislation aimed at curbing workplace harassment and bullying, few instances are reported to managers, and despite the fact that most companies have anti-harassment policies, few employees are aware of them – or choose to call the bully’s bluff. One recent exception – Julie Ann Horvath’s widely-reported departure from Silicon Valley darling GitHub – involved both sexism and harassment. Horvath took on the company first on Twitter and, after she left, in the press. The upshot: not only is bullying damaging to the victim, it cuts into productivity, has high costs, and may signal serious issues with workplace culture.
What can management do to ensure the workplace and digital space does not support a culture of bullying?
Collaborate on a mission-values statement that clearly sets forth the corporate culture – this may sound crunchy, but even the exercise will give you a sense of who’s on board and who isn’t – and may save you some time identifying potential trouble spots.
Examine your management style. Bullying often starts at the top. Autocratic management style, rigid hierarchies, lack of accountability, passive-aggressive behavior all hide – or enable – bullying.
Define ‘bullying’, ‘harassment’ and ‘inappropriate behavior’in your HR policies and ensure all employees are trained in what to look for and how to report issues. Don’t forget regular refreshers.
Be on the lookout for persistent retention issues. If a lot of people leave one department or group, you have a problem, and it probably involves some kind of harassment or bullying.
Take swift corrective action when bullying is revealed. Make it clear bullies aren’t rewarded – in fact, exactly the opposite. Turning a blind eye to a bully will encourage him or her. Take action.
Bullies need to be stopped. Whether it’s Paul Bugbee, chasing a kid down the street, or your CEO mocking an employee in a large meeting, or employees bashing one another on social media channels – this behavior should not be tolerated. Maybe it’s time we talk more about it. It’s a culture imperative for all of us.
A version of this was first posted on Forbes.