Avoiding a Black Eye: Understanding and Preventing Workplace Bullying

When I was 7 years old, I had a bully. Although he wasn’t big, nor did he have an entourage, he pestered me no less. He followed me around the commons area near our home, and pinched me over and over. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. I ran into our kitchen where my parents were having coffee, and I told them about my bully. In response, my dad shrugged his shoulders and said, “Just punch him.”

So, what do you think I did? That’s right– I followed my dad’s advice. I marched outside, walked straight up to my bully, and I jabbed him in the eye.

bullied little girl's sad face
Christine Yanner

Now, I’m not proud of that moment, even if it did solve the problem. My bully was no longer a bully. Rather, he was just another kid in the commons area, but someone who avoided me… with his black eye.

Unfortunately, even though we all eventually turn into adults, some bullies don’t relent. Furthermore, bullying doesn’t remain confined to the playground. It can manifest anywhere, including at work.

While prevention methods are a must, there is still more to know. Here are some ways bullying occurs in the workplace and how you can take steps to extinguish it.

Know Your Enemy

Regardless of whether you accept it, this is war. Bullying is not fun, and it’s not cool. However, sometimes teasing and chiding can slowly escalate before we realize it. What might start out as a joke can easily turn into a conflict. Then, a conflict can turn to bullying, which can end in harassment if not addressed. Therefore, the goal is to keep something friendly from morphing into a problem.

So, how can you tell if a bullying situation is occurring in your workplace?

First, let’s be clear about what bullying is. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as:

Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is :

Cartoon of workplace shaming of a coworker at her desk

· Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or

· Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or

· Verbal abuse

What It Is, What It’s Not

Next, it’s important to note that workplace bulling isn’t always a superior intimidating a direct report. Actually, sometimes direct reports are accused of bullying superiors. However, statistics show that most cases of bullying occur laterally between coworkers. Most notably, an estimated 20% of American adults have experienced workplace bullying.

Bullying in the Workplace

Finally, let’s look at this definition in the context of real life scenarios. Keep in mind that the workplace is intended to be a professional environment. This means that people put their differences aside to accomplish a common goal. There is no place for bullying in the workplace, regardless of how it is disguised.

Overt Bullying

Some overt acts of workplace bullying include the following:

  • Aggression or Threats – These acts can be either physical or verbal, and they are meant to intimidate. For example, yelling at someone or giving a person the stink eye. Invading someone’s space is also a form of aggression.
  • Embarrassment or Belittling – These acts include public humiliation and disparagement. For example, calling people names or eye-rolling. Also, ignoring a co-worker’s input during meetings is a common way of belittling.
  • Blocking or Punishing – These include preventing someone from advancing his/her career. Also, a bully might punish someone by isolating him/her from others. Namely, a bully will isolate by purposely excluding an employee from important meetings.

Discrete Bullying

Still, other acts of workplace bullying will be more discrete. Nevertheless, it is important to be on the lookout for these types of actions. There are many forms of discrete workplace bulling, including:

  • Unreasonable Responsibilities – This could mean an employee is given too much work in order to sabotage his/her efforts. On the other hand, a bully might take responsibilities away without reason. The bully’s goal is one of two things. The goal is to give the employee less than what he/she should be doing, in order to make the employee look like he/she is not carrying enough weight. Or, the goal is to give the employee too much so that he/she can’t handle the workload.
  • Criticism or Ignoring – A bully might be overly critical when an employee makes comments. Conversely, the bully might have refused to acknowledge someone at all.
  • Creating Rivals – This is when a bully pits different employees against one another. This allows the bully to stand unnoticed in the sidelines, observing the conflict.

Prevention, Prevention, Prevention

Now, the best way to prevent workplace bullying is to establish zero-tolerance. Zero-tolerance is a method of prevention, but it’s far from one-and-done. Conversely, you will have to continue to remind employees to recalibrate their actions. And while employees might try to defend themselves, punching a bully in the eye is not encouraged.

Many employees will naturally maintain a professional demeanor. However, others will need redirection occasionally.

Prevention is key, but it is equally important to address bullying. Here are 4 suggestions for keeping workplace bullying at bay:

  1. Don’t disregard accusations of bullying. Be prompt in responding to reports of bullying, and thorough in investigating. It is important to listen to both sides, and to be fair to all parties involved.
  2. Keep your eyes open for workplace bullying. Be vigilant! First, watch for workloads that are unevenly distributed. Second, be on the lookout for employees who seem sensitive to others’ input or comments. Third, if you notice tension in the workplace, look into it. Never assume that the issue will resolve itself.
  3. Keep workplace bullying policies and procedures current. The employee handbook is a good place to highlight these policies and procedures. Also, consider annual opportunities to train employees. This helps remind employees that bullying is a no-no.
  4. Create resolution plans for the bully and the victim. Without resolution between the two parties, retaliation is possible. You won’t want a situation to go from bad to worse because you didn’t see the process through.

When Bullying Beats You to the Punch

In spite of your best efforts, sometimes it isn’t always possible to ward off the attack before it happens. This is because the bullying might already be underway before your arrival on the scene.

Nevertheless, it is still your responsibility to nip workplace bullying in the bud. If you catch wind of a bullying situation, be swift to address it. Don’t be timid about not wanting to rock the boat. The boat is already rocking, so it is your job to get it back on smooth waters.

A Blind Eye Can Turn into a Black Eye

Whether you are a member of the jocks, geeks, or good ole boys club, bullying is not cool, so don’t turn a blind eye. If you neglect to address the behavior, it can have negative effects. For example, a decrease in workplace morale and productivity. Furthermore, in a worst-case situation, it can end in a lawsuit. In any case, it would be a black eye for your company.

So, do the right thing. As a leader, remain aware that workplace bullying does occur, and it will continue to occur. However, to what degree is largely up to you. Play your part in prevention. First, make the zero-tolerance policy clear to your employees. Next, respond to all accusations, suspicions, and rumors of bullying. Finally, have clear bullying policies and procedures in place. Keeping on top of these things will help keep your workplace happy and productive. Most importantly it will help prevent any black eyes.

A cartoon lion that got beat up, black eye, with stars above his head

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This is not meant to provide legal counsel or advice. Every situation is different. Please contact an HR professional or employment attorney before taking any action.

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