Workplace bullies usually get what they deserve

Victims and witnesses often stand up to bullying

Most workplace bullies are dealt with by their employers, but by the time that happens the victims have usually moved on to another job, according to new research out of the United States.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, conducted four-hour interviews with 30 people who had either been victims or witnesses to workplace bullying in 30 different states. What she found is that, in nearly every case, the bullies were fired, demoted or removed from the situation in some way. But, by the time that happened, most of the victims she had spoken with had moved on to other organizations.

“Even though it feels like nothing is ever done to bullies in these organizations, in time something is done,” she said.

Her study Take This Job and… Quitting and Other Forms of Resistance to Workplace Bullying, also found that victims aren’t powerless to put a stop to the situation, and she was surprised at how often, and how vigorously, victims fought against their tormentors.

“What surprised me was how much and how long they fought back,” said Lutgen-Sandvik. “They may have felt powerless, but they never stopped fighting back.”

In fact, 27 of the 30 subjects she interviewed had taken some kind of action against bullying.

Victims take a stand by quitting

One of the ways these victims and witnesses took a stand against the bully, and the organization that stood idly by, was by quitting.

While on the surface, quitting might look like giving up or running away, when a group of employees leave a department or an organization, it sends a powerful message to upper management that there’s something wrong, said Lutgen-Sandvik.

“In and of itself, one person leaving probably doesn’t have a lot of impact. But when many people go… and when it becomes a problem for the organization, then exodus really is a pretty effective form of resistance against bullying and also a way of changing a system,” she said.

Usually the first to leave are the best and the brightest because they can get jobs anywhere. And if the situation was really bad, people who have left the organization might tell other people not to apply, making it even harder for the company to carry on, said Lutgen-Sandvik.

However, Frema Engel, a Montreal-based organizational consultant who specializes in violence prevention, said quitting isn’t an effective way to deal with bullying in the workplace.

“You’re not doing this to send a message to the bully at all. You’re only doing this because there’s no other option and you have to make a decision that your health, well-being and career are more important than sticking it out,” she said.

Unfortunately, when people reach this stage, often their self-esteem has been so badly battered by the bullying they don’t feel like they have any other options, even when they do, said Engel. And finding another job isn’t always easy.

“Finding another job takes work and it’s an investment of time and energy,” she said.

Confronting the bully

A better approach, according to Engel, is for the victim to confront the bully as soon as that person does something that is offensive. In doing so, the victim should politely, but firmly, explain what behaviours are offensive, explain why the behaviours are unacceptable and ask that the behaviours stop.

However, Lutgen-Sandvik found in her research that directly confronting the bully had the least impact. This is because most bullies are highly aggressive and see threats where there aren’t any. A confrontation would make the bully feel very threatened and he would be likely to lash out.

But she didn’t dismiss the idea totally. If the bully doesn’t have an aggressive personality, and only exhibits bullying behaviour when he is under stress, then approaching the bully one-on-one can be effective.

“Assess the kind of personality this person has. Does this person run roughshod over everybody or is he pretty much okay but has a tendency to go off the deep end when things get stressful?” said Lutgen-Sandvik. “If you can solve it with a one-on-one conversation, wouldn’t that be wonderful? And sometimes it works.”

Group confrontations work better

However, it is almost always more effective when a group of people, both victims and witnesses, circumvent the bully and go directly to upper management, she said.

“It’s much harder to disregard three or four voices than it is just one,” she said.

The employees should know what they want the outcome of the meeting with management to be and they should give management concrete details and information about the bullying behaviour and its persistent nature.

“Many of these things seem very small,” said Lutgen-Sandvik. “It’s a pattern of numerous different kinds of negative acts.”

However, there’s no guarantee the supervisor or manager will be helpful, said Engel.

“Sometimes supervisors will be sympathetic and do something about it, and sometimes they won’t,” she said.

Management missteps

Common mistakes by management

There are some common mistakes managers and HR professionals make when dealing with reports of bullying that can actually make the situation worse, said organizational consultant Frema Engel. These include taking too long to investigate, doing nothing about the complaint, failing to respect confidentiality and blaming the victim.

But there are a lot of things managers and HR can do to make the situation better.

It starts with creating a respectful work environment where leaders make it clear that bullying won’t be tolerated, said Engel.

“By saying ‘no’ to bullying, production goes up, disability claims go down and you have a positive environment,” she said.

Also, if leaders are better able to manage conflict when it arises and help employees manage stress, bullying incidents will decrease, said Engel.

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