In the wake of movies like “Mean Girls” and “Bully,” bullying, both in schools and the workplace, has gotten heightened attention. Indeed, the Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, and bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment in the workplace. But what exactly does that mean? Why does it matter? How should companies react?
The Workplace Bullying Institute, which encompasses 36 state chapters and leads anti-bullying campaigns across the country, defines workplace bullying as “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation and humiliation.” Bullies have certainly been around since the first office door was opened–it’s not a new phenomenon, despite the recent hype.
People often get caught up in the semantics of defining bullying. Regardless, there’s one big, important takeaway: Workplace bullying is an early warning sign of potential violence in the office.
Bullying is a Precursor to Worse Behavior
Bullying is about gaining power and control–bullies pick on others to raise their own self-esteem. They often fabricate conflict and create unnecessary stress through distraction to gain power and attention. Examples include sabotaging a coworker’s work, disrupting the workplace by communicating false rumors or information, and deliberately invading the space of others. The same personality traits are found in perpetrators that also engage in workplace aggression and violence.
In fact, James Cawood and Michael Corcoran, co-authors of “Violence Assessment and Intervention,” devised the behavioral escalation curve. It states that certain behaviors have a tendency to progress into more dangerous and violent acts. Intimidation, or bullying, is at the start of the curve – the first warning sign of potentially worse behavior to come. Experience reveals that bullying often progresses into threats and harassment. Usually by the time an individual moves to harassment, they are on the verge of more aggressive behavior, setting the stage for actual violence.
What managers need to know is that:
- Threats are the best indicator of danger. Threats are usually a plea for help. Those making threats know what they are capable of. An employer who doesn’t intervene is by this stage irresponsible and potentially puts the whole workplace at risk.
- As bad behavior progresses, the amount of time and number of options you have to stop it decreases.Think of it this way: By the time an employee brings a gun to work, reaction must be swift and there are no options like counseling or probation. Early intervention is critical.
Bullying needs to be taken seriously, as it is often a precursor of worse things, and needs to be managed swiftly. Here’s what managers can do to help prevent and properly handle bullying in the workplace.
- Establish policies: At Convercent, we have a policy whereby anyone who raises their voice or hand in the workplace is subject to disciplinary action. Set boundaries to insure intimidation is not tolerated. It’s also important to have policies in place that allows employees to easily and safely report issues of concern. Many times managers are not aware of bullying in the workplace, and employees need to be able to report misbehavior to management so that management can investigate.
- Communicate and train staff: Policies must be well communicated to all employees. Managers also need to be trained on what to do when bullying or other actions are reported. Managers need to know how to act swiftly and appropriately so that situations don’t escalate and get out of control.
- Intervene early: At the first sign of bullying, investigate, intervene and put a stop to it. This may be through counseling, probation or termination–the point is, you want to stop this behavior before it moves up the curve, when you have fewer options and less time.
- Discuss inappropriate behavior in the workplace: Employees need to know the topic can be discussed openly and honestly. By witnessing such communications, bullies will be less prone to acting out or treating others improperly.