Bullying in the Workplace

conflict-managementBullies aren’t just found on the playground. As a society, we would like to think that when bullies grow up they have learned right from wrong, changed their behavior, and treat others with dignity and respect. Many do; however, some bullies never revert from their mean, aggressive behavior. As our society evolves, with its reliance on technology, many bullies are finding different means and different environments to continue their tyrant-like behavior.

Company of Experts was recently the target of a bully. The Company had an agreement with an independent contractor whose job would require minimal supervision/input from a few individuals via a weekly teleconference. Over the course of time, numerous issues began to surface. First, work submitted by this contractor was not completed, and in some cases, was never attempted. The blame was pushed upon the individuals this person worked with for reasons such as: “it was too much work,” “it wasn’t worth my time,” “no one asked me my opinion,” etc. Needless to say, not a lot of work was accomplished by this contractor. Individuals within the Company picked up the slack and worked long hours in order to meet project deadlines.

Second, the cost to finish this contractor’s projects continually increased. Not only was the Company paying the contractor’s salary, they were also paying the salary of the individuals that were taking on the contractor’s responsibilities. The contractor was originally hired because this individual possessed technical skill sets needed for specific projects. However, because the contractor was not doing their job, the Company was compelled to hire additional staff, who also possessed these skill sets, to complete projects that were neglected by the contractor.

Third, employees who worked with this contractor, and met via weekly teleconferences, were suffering from anxiety attacks prior to each meeting. When questioned as to what provoked these attacks, many answered that after each meeting they were assigned an extensive list of items/jobs by the contractor to complete before their next weekly meeting. They added that their “to do list” consisted of tasks that were part of the contractor’s responsibility; however, if they did not take it upon themselves to pick up the slack, the jobs would never get done. In addition, employees noted that if items on their list were not completed by the following teleconference meeting, the contractor would complain that the employees were not doing their job. As a result the contractor would say something to the effect of, “Well I can’t do my job if you don’t do yours.” Many employees would ignore other items/projects they were working on in order to complete the tasks that the contractor wanted done. The tension in the office was thick with worry that they would not finish their “to do list”.

Company of Experts determined it was in the best interest of the Company and its employees if they released the contractor. During this transition, the contractor was harassing employees via phone and email, inquiring the reasons for the contract termination. The Company notified the contractor to not contact their employees in any way, email or phone. The contractor retaliated and continued to harass employees and threatened harm to the Company and to the employees personally. When the Company released the contractor from service, they changed the usernames and passwords to the Company’s websites, newsletters, etc in fear that the contractor may try to “destroy” materials. Unfortunately, the Company forgot to remove the contractor from having access to the Company’s corporate blog and calendar. As a result, the contractor changed the username and password to these items, which prohibited Company access to these items, inevitably rendering them useless.

The cost in lost time due to stress, restoring damaged materials, documenting, researching our rights, defending the employees and the Company are great. Additional costs that can be incurred by companies that suffer at the hands of bullies are: increased cost of health insurance for employees, lost days at work, increased legal bills, talent turnover, etc. We think we are being polite by calling these individuals rude or difficult people, but these individuals are “Bullies”. Bullies (like the contractor in our story) create unhappy, unsafe, and unproductive work environments.

You may see several workshops titled “Dealing with Difficult People”. Company of Experts has refrained from developing any workshop with such a title. Is it rude, difficult, bullying, or harassing? Our online workshop “Managing Professional Relationships at Work” is a beginning to understand how others behave at work. The Company of Experts will address bullying at work in this workshop which is to begin in early September. Information regarding registration times, dates, curricula, etc. can be found by clicking here.

The Company wanted to become more aware of how to spot inappropriate, abusive behavior so as to protect itself and its employees. The Company began researching and uncovered several informative websites. One website, workplacebulling.org, had a startling statistic that read:

“A staggering 37% of the U.S. workforce is bullied at work (an estimated 54 million Americans).” This website lists the traits of individuals who are targeted by bullies:

  • Individuals targeted by bullies tend to be independent. The increased level of independence drives the bully’s need to control.
  • Individuals targeted have more social skills and are more likely to possess a high level of emotional intelligence (i.e. empathy – even for their bullies).
  • Targeted individuals also do not respond to aggression with aggression.

What Company of Expert has learned from this experience…

The conflict seems to be with the perception that people grow and develop as they age. We anticipate those who were Bullies in school will transition to adulthood recognizing that civility and courtesy are key factors to development and growth.  In reality, they may have actually become more of a Bully, therefore, becoming someone who stalks, harasses, and commit crimes that they can be punished for.  Still, other Bullies stay within the law. These type of bullies enjoy the attention they receive from their erratic actions.

The general response from legal consul is mediation. Unless, the person is violating the law, we look at both people as needing to be “fixed”.  This puts the Bully and the Target on an equal playing field, which sounds like a good way to handle this. In fact, most employers and employees are not trained to handle this complex issue. Our research has found that some websites and books recommend that you combat the Bullies on their level. Like you do for a wild animal, you get “bigger” than they are; which is an interesting concept. However, the problem with this approach is that this is not team-friendly.  Just because an employer removes a bully from the work environment does not mean that the bully won’t resurface in some way. As in our case, the bully retaliated and has continued to make efforts to harm and destroy the Company. Most HR departments and managers work to keep business flowing and maybe not be trained or have time to handle conflicts such as this. This leaves them feeling overworked and inefficient.

Resolving disagreements is difficult today for two reasons:

  1. We are emotionally stressed because of the weak economy, world ecology and the potential of terrorists’ threats.  This keeps people in reactive thinking which tends to close them off to creative resolution or to make them back away from engagement.
  2. We simply do not have the tools to civilly and cooperatively achieve sustainable resolutions to the problems which arise in organizations.

Will we ever change the inappropriate behavior of bullies?  Maybe not.  Bullies usually do not listen, are aggressive, and do not understand appropriate social behavior.  The decision is up to us.  We either accept a bully’s inappropriate behavior or become proactive in taking the necessary steps to discontinue a business relationship. Extreme cases may require having to refer the matter to legal counsel.

Working for a living is a basic for most of us. We can learn job skills and earn degrees to get the job that we want. Keeping that job and finding happiness there requires that we each have the interpersonal (or intra personal?) behaviors that are complimentary to how we want to be treated, to our team, and to the Company we work for. This fits into the lifelong learning category. We can do this learning in many ways such as reading, mentoring, coaching, modeling (how we teach others and how they teach us – our actions and interactions!) and workshops. Company of Experts has developed terrific programs that can help you develop your leadership style. In this new society, we each are leaders of our future – the path we choose is up to us. For workshops and programs that we offer – Leadership Development Institute (LDI) and the Center for Appreciative Inquiry. The Department Chair Institute is specifically tailored for our educational partners.

Melissa Robaina

About Melissa Robaina

Melissa Robaina, MBA is an Appreciative Inquiry Facilitator and Consultant for the Company of Experts. For the last few years, Melissa has worked for the Company as a content creator and has collaborated with numerous subject matter experts around the world researching, organizing, and writing material that nurtures discussion and is applicable to today’s rapidly changing environment. Melissa has an interest in adult learning theory and is passionate about coordinating, developing, and facilitating transformation solutions in all human systems. Melissa has also co-facilitated Company of Experts offerings related to Change, Paradigm Shifts and Online offerings.

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