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LeadingEdition: E-Newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors

Dealing with workplace bullies

The news has often highlighted schoolyard bullies who drove classmates to violence, such as at Columbine High School, but bullies are found in all walks of life, including the workplace. Surveys show that one in five workers is exposed to verbal and emotional abuse each year.

What is a bully?

In the June 2005 edition of HRMagazine, the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute defines bullying as repeated nonphysical, health-impairing psychological mistreatment that falls outside discriminatory harassment.

Why are bullies a problem?

Bullies typically pick out one or more targets for their focus. A target is usually a friendly, trusting, and cooperative person. A target is estimated to have between 10 and 52 percent lower productivity at work because of time spent defending himself or herself, networking for support, or being demotivated and stressed, sometimes to the point of being physically ill. The stress can even affect the target�s family. Ultimately, bullies may become a legal risk if safety and health issues are not addressed.

Who can be a bully?

Supervisors tend to be bullies in 80 percent of cases, but they are equally likely to be a man or a woman. Other bullies can be peers, customers, or suppliers. Famous bullies include Donald Trump of �You�re fired!� fame in the business world, Bobby Knight of chair-throwing fame in the sports world, and John Bolton, the president�s nominee for United Nations secretary, who was accused of chasing and screaming at an employee 11 years ago. Truly, bullies are in every type of workplace.

Classic bullies

Some of the more recognizable bullies include the Constant Critic, the Two-Headed Snake, the Gatekeeper, and the Screaming Mimi. The Constant Critic chips away at the target�s confidence behind closed doors to ensure deniability. The Two-Headed Snake is friendly to the target in public, but destroys the target�s reputation behind the scenes. The Gatekeeper finds out what the target needs to do a good job, but then withholds what is needed. The Screaming Mimi instills fear in the target, as well as in witnesses, so they will be too afraid to respond.

Specific tactics that bullies use include staring/glaring, discounting others� thoughts in meetings, using the silent treatment, taking credit for work done by others, making insults based on a person�s characteristics, encouraging someone to quit or transfer rather than face more mistreatment, starting or failing to stop gossip, yelling in front of others to humiliate a person, and many others.

How to deal with a bully

It is important that a supervisor set behavioral expectations upon hire to make sure all staff members understand the need to act professionally at all times and treat others with respect. Many departments at Purdue are familiar with the Basic Principles, which encourage maintaining the self-confidence and self-esteem of co-workers, and maintaining good relationships with others. Expectations also include being familiar with the University policies on anti-harassment and violence in the workplace. When inappropriate interpersonal behaviors arise, a supervisor needs to act promptly to hold staff accountable. If necessary, the supervisor needs to follow through with progressive discipline to make sure the behavior doesn�t escalate. Employee Relations staff, service team specialists, and Employee Assistance Program staff can provide guidance in difficult situations.

What if YOU�RE the bully?

Considering that bullies tend to be supervisors 80 percent of the time, it appears many bullies may be unaware of their status. Being a supervisor carries many responsibilities and much power, so it is easy to be perceived as a bully if your words or actions are not delivered professionally. Obvious signs that you may be a bully include staff avoiding you, staff complaining about how you treat them, or staff having a lack of engagement or positive connection with you. Indirect clues may include frequent job abandonment or high turnover of staff. If any of these signals appear, you may want to ask a peer about your style. Some departments utilize confidential multi-rater assessments in their performance appraisal process - this could be helpful as well. Finally, ask your staff about your interactions; if necessary, give them time to meet together to summarize their impressions so that no one is afraid of retaliation.

Benefits of bully prevention

Other countries have been much more proactive than the United States in addressing bullies as a workplace problem. According to the Canada Safety Council, potential benefits of anti-bullying actions include a more peaceful and productive workplace, better decision-making, less time lost to sick leave or self-defensive activity, higher staff retention, and a lower risk of legal action. Organizations who manage people well outperform those who don�t by 30 to 40 percent. Development of strong interpersonal skills at all levels is fundamental to good management and a healthy workplace. There is no place for bullies in a well-run organization.

- Amy Boyle and Sue Gibson
Housing and Food Services Human Resources

Gold rule

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