My friend has a colleague, let’s call her Millie. Millie is in her sixties and loves spending most of her time at work preparing food, eating, and washing up. She has a mid-level administrative position at a big institution which has nothing to do with food.
Millie shares an office with seven other people and despite being allowed to carry out her carefully crafted eating routine every day, she is not very happy with her job. She often expresses her negativity to other people in different ways. Problem is, they are all not very nice ways and she gets a bit personal.
Millie is a bully.
The case of Millie
So what actually is bullying in the workplace? According to Bullying UK it is any behaviour that creates an intimidating or humiliating work environment for another.
Fifteen years ago Millie was a middle-aged woman starting a new job. Somewhere along the first few years, her perception of professionalism seemed to have altered and she began openly expressing negative opinions about her colleagues’ ways of working, pay and time off.
She would spend hours looking at calendars, enquiring where people were and questioning them about their choice of priorities. She would then give them a run-down of all the ways they were wrong.
And five years ago, a particularly prickly email was the tipping point for a colleague of hers who submitted a formal complaint to the Head of Department.
The difficulties of dealing with bullying
Addressing workplace bullying is important. Managers and HR professionals have been doing just that, satisfaction rates among victims have been low.
Bullying has a negative impact on mental and physical health. Even if your company is driven by achieving targets and not by employee wellbeing, the adverse effects of bullying persist.
The financial and reputational costs of employees leaving because of bullying are only the tip of the iceberg – imagine if a whole team was underperforming because of difficult working conditions. What about a whole department? Or the whole company?
It is not unusual that the Big Boss is the bully. Research has found that where managers as bullies are concerned, HR professionals have been perceived as inactive and unable. Claims have been inadequately handled or dismissed altogether on the basis that a culture of motivational fear will increase results.
You say bullying, they say management style.
And this is where the difficulty lies – despite countless policies, there is a person assessing the bullying claim. And as all people, they are undoubtedly biased.
Back to our case study – Millie had stepped on some toes and a complaint had been raised. This is the place to add Millie’s position in the workplace was not managerial. She line-managed nobody yet seemed to reprimand everybody, including her own manager.
A straightforward case then, right?
Bullying has been reported. Now what?
Most companies don’t want to lose any employees which means in an ideal world, both the bully and the victim will find a productive way to co-exist. This is where mediating comes into play.
The HR professional meets with the victim, then the bully, then the victim and so on until a decision has been made. Sometimes they get them both in a room to work it out. And sometimes all this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
In Millie’s case it worked for her but didn’t work for everyone else in the department. After the formal claim she was investigated and she had a plan written up detailing how she was to behave in certain situations.
She was forced to get counselling and to write an apology to the one victim that had spoken out against her. As far as the company was concerned, she had been reinvented as a new employee.
Management and HR kept a close eye on her for a couple of years and when they saw how well the new Millie fit into the team, they relaxed.
Fighting vs. coping
Fast-forward to today, Millie has gone back to berating her colleagues. The person who submitted the original complaint is long gone and everyone is back at square one, not wanting to speak up.
Is it better to confront her about it or keep ignoring it, hoping she will stop or retire? It is unclear and research suggests both do little to prevent further episodes.
Most bullies are opportunistic and if the victim stands up to them, they would stop or reduce the threatening behaviours. But there are always exceptions and responding in this way can start a war in your team.
It also places the burden of action on the victim. In a professional working environment no one should experience bullying no matter their natural character setup.
Ignoring, or simply coping, on the other hand is emotionally taxing. It may lead to misplaced anger, depression, anxiety – a whole range of undesirable states for your employees to be in.
So is it all so bad?
I bet you have reached this point thinking, ‘Surely there are examples of a happy ending?’ Yes, there are.
And the recipe to success includes a well-written anti-bullying policy and highly trained HR professionals who can then go on and train line-managers to implement the policy.
A clear and consistent way of dealing with bullies builds trust between the employees, their managers and the HR professionals. This trust leads to an environment where threatening behaviours are spoken about and reduced.
Maybe if Millie was originally dealt with in another way, her colleagues would have trusted the company’s leaders more and would have spoken up if a new Millie came to be. Maybe Millie would have been an example for future Millies how not to behave.
It is difficult to predict what the outcome could have been if the policy was stricter.
As an HR professional, you don’t have many options
There is big difference internationally in the way bullying is viewed. A recent study looking at preferred anti-bullying action by HR professionals discovered that bullying was mostly seen as a financial issue with the ethical issues often overlooked.
Ethical motivations were mentioned only by a small minority of interviewees, mostly by Australian, Finnish, or Mexican participants. Work climate, image, turnover, employee attitudes, and legal aspects were the most frequently mentioned.
Currently, measures to prevent workplace bullying include:
- Redesigning the work environment
- Conflict management/resolution systems
- Leadership training
- Anti-bullying policies/codes of conduct
- Raising awareness of bullying and its consequences
And these all work to an extent. But bullying occurs and when it does, there are commonly only two ways that HR professionals handle a claim – they either formally or informally mediate or they take disciplinary action.
HR professionals are torn between which is the best approach as they face the dilemma of retaining talent vs. ensuring a professional working environment. However, when looking at what they perceive as successful resolution, applying sanctions seems to win over milder approaches.
About the author
Polina is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist, with a personal interest in psychology and HR management. You can learn more about her and read more of her work by visiting her website here.
Want to read more about how to deal with workplace bullying? Check out our article about the most common workplace bully personalities.