Bully Tolerant Companies

No organization wants a bully. Yet even the best-intended companies can actually encourage bullying by tolerating it, ending up nurturing workplaces where bullies thrive.

It seems counter-intuitive for a workplace to be able to do this, given the common knowledge that bullying decreases productivity, increases worker physical and emotional stress and leads to staff turnover.

There are four ways, however, that organizations create seed beds for bullying and end up promoting the very behaviour they wish to prevent.

1. Bully-Tolerant Policies and Procedures

The best way to encourage bullying is to avoid discussing the topic. So, it’s imperative for the top levels of management to discuss the prevailing attitudes regarding bullying. Understand what it is and how it manifests itself. For example, in your workplace, is it alright to yell, swear, eye roll, ignore people, talk over others, name call, or tell sexist or racist jokes? Is it permissible for managers who witness these acts to ignore them until someone gets enough courage to complain?

If it is alright, what rationale exists for tolerating abuse and rudeness? Is there a mindset such as, “Well, it’s mostly men here, so what do you expect?” or, “You can’t stop women in an almost exclusively female workforce from talking behind each others backs?” Perhaps it’s “People need thicker skins around here.”

What are the company’s values around bullying and uncivil behaviour in general? And what policies exist or could be put in place to deal with the behaviour when it occurs? A company’s response to bullying incidents will differentiate it from a bully-tolerant workplace and a decent place to work.

It is critical to design explicit guidelines regarding the type of behaviour that will not be tolerated in the organization and what steps will be taken to remedy infractions.

As well, creating a plan to describe both the behaviour that won’t be tolerated and the type of behavior the company values, as well as training managers and supervisors to intervene appropriately is key.

Without these measures in place, a company is ripe for bullying.

2. Bystander Fear

Policies and practices that discourage bullying are paramount. These guidelines are more effective when staff are unwilling to allow bullying to occur in their midst. Training staff to identify bullying and to intervene when witnessing it is key. Bystanders witnessing bullying often want to do something about what they are seeing, but are at a loss to know what interventions would be effective and appropriate.

Rather than stand around helplessly, staff members can be provided with tools to reduce the guilt and discomfort that follows being party to bullying. Depending on company instructions, it may mean reporting the event to a supervisor. It could mean discussing the incident with the individual doing the bullying in private or commenting on the behaviour while it is happening. A simple reminder that a company doesn’t tolerate yelling may be all that’s needed.

The toll bullying takes on bystanders cannot be underestimated. We may focus on the damage to the victim and not realize that bystanders suffer from shame, guilt, helplessness and feelings of powerlessness. They may dread going into work, fearing they may have to witness someone else’s humiliation. They may fear being targeted themselves or keep quiet due to fears of retaliation-a valid concern. Bullies don’t tolerate feedback about their behaviour very well.

3. Bully Immunity

In our practice, we have seen a phenomenon where bullies are tolerated and encouraged because they are high performers. Convinced of the bully’s indispensability, organizational leaders turn a blind eye to that person’s behaviour while highlighting how much money, work or prestige he or she generates. Plus, in this scenario, the human resources department tends to collude with the leadership and may subtly or overtly dissuade staff from complaining or blowing the whistle. Policies and procedures designed to deal with the issue are subverted and complaints get bogged down in investigations, meetings and red tape- if any even make it to that stage. As a result, staff soon learn that the policy has no teeth and the company has no intention of backing up its stated intentions regarding bullying with action.

The myth of indispensability is common and hard to combat. The bully also may actively work to be seen as vital to organizational success. The organization becomes convinced that the bully’s means justify his or her ends and the results speak for themselves. Bullying may be a way the bully gets the job done, but at what long-term organizational cost?

Once the idea that an individual’s ability trumps the requirement to treat others with respect and dignity becomes acceptable, the bully-tolerant organization is born. All kinds of harassing, bullying and rude behaviour will be tolerated and in effect, rewarded. These bullies can look forward to remaining in their positions and even being promoted. Victims are actively dissuaded by company representatives from making complaints or trying to effect resolution.

4. The Bully Works for Like-Minded Leaders

In some organizations, the leaders condone bullying because they operate similarly. Perhaps the director, manager or supervisor shares similarities with the bully and sympathizes with him or her. The leader may even use the same bully-like tactics as an underling. Some can be manipulative and dishonest and use the bully to control staff. The leader may have a problem differentiating between abuse and anger. He or she may yell and name call too. The leader’s thinking matches the bully’s and they collude to lead through fear.

A leader and a bully may have a good cop/bad cop dynamic. The leader is the good cop while the bully is the bad cop. This saves the leader’s reputation as “nice” while another individual, one rung down, delivers on objectives through terror tactics. These pairings are not always conscious but the leader apparently benefits from the bully’s behaviour and so resists changing it.

This kind of short-term thinking is justified in a myriad of ways, such as: “We’ll just get through this next quarter and then we’ll deal with him.” Inevitably, the damage is done and the leader who facilitates appears to be uncaring or blind. Either way, the leader doesn’t stay the “nice” guy for long and the bully creates an unsafe and eventually an unproductive work environment.

Bullies don’t exist in a vacuum. They are tolerated and given tacit permission by organizations either unwilling or unprepared to be clear about maintaining respect for human dignity. Failing to work to bully-proof your company will hurt staff, the company and its reputation as a good place to work.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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