During an interview that a candidate felt was going very well, she said to the executive, “So, I heard you are a yeller. If you offer me this job and I accept it, you cannot yell me at me. Not at me alone or at me in a meeting.” Then, she watched his reaction which was shocked, at first. After a moment, the executive said, “I can agree to that. When can you start?” The executive kept his word and did not yell at his new assistant. However, he did continue yelling at everyone else. The assistant lasted three months.
Workplace bullies believe that they are solving a problem when they act out with verbal abuse, physical assault, cyberbullying and passive aggressive bombs. Clearly, the bullies are out of touch with how people are really responding to them.
Targets and witnesses to bullying call them unhinged psychopaths, monsters and devils wearing Prada. On the outside, staffers may be smiling but, on the inside, they are being eaten alive and traumatized. It’s happened to me. How about you?
Bullying is the ultimate workplace lose/lose situation. Most people don’t confront bullies out of fear of making the bully act out even more. Yes, that happens sometimes. However, the opposite can be true.
What can managers and staffers do to keep their sanity and their jobs?
(Spoiler: Unlike in the popular movie “Nine to Five,” the solution is not found in stringing up the bully and holding him hostage.)
Here are 10 ways that actually work to handle bullies.
1. Psych 101. Do your homework on bullies, sociopaths, and psychopaths. It’s easy to throw these psychological diagnoses around and some actually do apply. However, most of us are not doctors so read up on these aberrant behaviors to see if your bully exhibits the symptoms. If a person truly is a sociopath or psychopath, that is mental illness and no staff member can fix mental illness on their own. Medication may be called for and therapy/coaching. Without it, the behaviors will only go unchecked and escalate.
2. Break the Cycle. Psychology teaches us that abused people often abuse others and it can often be unconscious. What breaks the vicious cycle of oblivious toxicity is raising awareness. This means speaking up to the bully directly, calmly, and without apology. Silence is the enemy.
3. Understand the Dynamic. Classic bully behavior is that when a bully is confronted without humiliation, that they will often move onto another target. Bullies prefer targets who don’t fight or push back.
4. Accountability is Critical. Without accountability, bullies get the message that they can get away with more and more egregious behavior and that makes them feel more and more powerful. It’s like a drug addiction. Consider the cases of Vladimir Putin, Scott Rudin, and Kevin Spacey.
5. See the Red Flags. Be alert to red flags about bullies from day one and don’t ignore them. In the interview, a candidate can ask, How are you on your worst day? Also, a candidate can find out how many people have come before them? If an executive has had 10 assistants in 2 years, that’s a major red flag. Don’t be afraid to ask why? Then, watch and listen.
6. Document Offensive/Abusive Behaviors. Specificity matters. Saying “he is always mean to me” won’t help. Saying “On March 9, he called me a moron and threw a pen at me at the staff meeting” will help. Keep notes of who else was in the room to be witnesses. HR and authorities will evaluate bullying by frequency and severity.
7. The Words to Say. One of my students had her executive take her head in his hands as he shook it from side to side saying, “Did you forget to bring your brain to work today?”
Be ready to act immediately following an act of bullying. Stay calm, direct and clear. Practice saying the following words out loud in order to get more comfortable speaking them. Practice decreases the stress because you feel more prepared and ready for when the bullying occurs.
“We need to talk about what just happened in the meeting. No one speaks to me like that. It is not productive.”
“Ouch. You may not be aware of this, but what you just said really hurt me. You have a wife and a daughter. What would you say if they told you that their executive said to them what you just said?”
“You may not know it, but what you just said to was offensive and rude. I like working here but that can’t happen again.”
Bullies learn quickly who they can push and who they can’t. After you say what you need to say, stop talking. Look your bully in the eye and wait. If staff wants to stay at the company and come out whole, targets must be ready to act on bullying behavior and also be ready to walk away.
8. Bullies Don’t Stop at One. Everyone has a singular bad day and says things they should not say. Bullies are repeat offenders. If they are bullying one person, they are likely bullying multiple people.
Sexual assault is also a form of bullying. Famous multiple offenders include: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
9. Go to HR. While going to HR with documentation is an option, what I have seen is far more effective is immediate response by the target to the bully. The question becomes whether a company truly has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying that has teeth in it. If it does, then the HR team is empowered to do an investigation and hold the bully accountable. Firing is not necessarily the answer. Coaching is.
10. Build Cultures of Respect. Company leaders can choose to build a company culture that is rooted in respect and dignity. Bullying cannot exist in a climate of respect. This translates to having strong policies and expectations around bullying/harassing behaviors that are communicated pre-hiring of staff and executives. This culture of accountability can be communicated on the website, in hiring materials including job descriptions, and on board materials.
Too many in our workplace are traumatized for life by bullies. Let’s keep in mind that those young schoolyard and cyber bullies who are permitted to bully when they are teens end up growing up to run offices and even countries.
When prepared with coaching, I teach my students to pushback on bullies. Here’s one example.
One assistant to the CEO had enough. Day after day in her six months of employment, she had watched the CEO humiliate staff with verbal beratement. Finally, she decided that she had to say something. After one such humiliation to a staffer who he made cry, the assistant followed the CEO into his office and closed the door. She said, “This has to stop. You cannot talk to people the way you do. You are chasing good people away. If it doesn’t, the next one will be me.” She did not wait for a response. She turned around and walked out and closed the door behind her. She thought that she might get fired but at that point, she didn’t care. Within a few minutes, the CEO came out with tears in his eyes and said, “Thank you. I get it. I’ll handle it.” And he did. The assistant worked with the CEO for 16 years. Was the CEO changed 100%? No. Did he still behave badly at times? Yes. Did he humiliate people anymore? No.
The bottom line is that no job is worth tolerating any form of workplace bullying and in 2022, staff is more than willing to walk away. Holding bullies accountable is the only way the behaviors stop. The price we are paying is far too high to allow these behaviors to continue.