Bullying in the Workplace: Fear, Loathing and Lawsuits

Personal BrandingSkill DevelopmentWorkplace Success

In sociology, you learn that all small groups function similarly and that includes the opportunistic behavior of bullying.
This learning is one of many reasons I encourage students to get something more than a vocational education, since simply studying finance, engineering or another skill-based major leaves you without the requisite knowledge for understanding behavior at work.

Social sciences should be required for anyone who intends to earn a living.

Bullying is a fact of life, whether you work in a company, volunteer in a cause-based organization or play hopscotch on the schoolyard in third grade. At some point, it’s likely that someone will try to dominate, frighten, and otherwise rob you or someone you know of rights, income or a sense of well-being.

Bullying typically serves the bully’s self-interest, which might be financial gain or simply the antisocial urge to harm another. In school, bullies steal lunch money. In business, bullies go for greater financial gain, privilege or position.

Of course, there is a difference between a schoolyard bully and a workplace bully. Largely the difference is who knows and is complicit in the bullying, who has gain associated with it, and what the harm equates to in real terms. There are special issues of the legality surrounding bullying when they take place within the confines of a corporation. The legalities may involve the responsibilities of corporate officers who knowingly engage in such acts or neglect to take corrective action when they are made known. Intentionally causing emotional harm, self-dealing, conspiracy, slander, and misrepresentation or misappropriation of assets may have significant legal consequences.

When you are bullied, the best course of action is to get sunlight on the bully’s behavior.

The first person to engage in this manner is the bully him or herself. Let them know what you are seeing. Be clear, objective and stick to the facts. Make your best attempt to stop them, by making it clear that it’s in THEIR best interest to stop. It will help to have a record that you can refer to.

Should that not be enough, report the behavior to get more daylight on it. Once again, be objective. At this point, it’s critical to have documentation, not just about the bully’s actions but also the effects on you.

Even when there are supervisors, it’s possible that no one wants to intercede. After all, fear and intimidation are part of the bully’s arsenal, and most people are loathe to stand up to a bully. In schools we see vicious bullying going on with the knowledge of teachers and administrators, much less other students. People choose to ignore the behavior because they feel imperiled or worse, they join with the bully, because it feel empowering to side with someone boldly causing harm to another.

Unfortunately, that leaves you with the final option, which is legal action. Get a knowledgeable attorney who can intercede on your behalf. The goal should be to stop the bullying behavior, and restore your workplace to a safe environment so you can be productive.

Bullying happens. It’s happened to me. And, likely it has or will happen to you.

Keep in mind that your ability to manage yourself, will allow you to lead others to a solution that is not just best for you but for your company as well.

You may be a world-class employee. You may have helped or otherwise supported the person who is now bullying you. Don’t let bullying change your values, your personal brand or your belief in yourself. Be smart. Be objective. Don’t become a smaller, angrier or vengeful version of yourself.

Key Learnings:

  1. Never expect anyone to come to your aid, even when in the past you have come to his or her aid. Never confuse how you act with how anyone else will act.
  2. Don’t mind read.  Simply document actions and observable behaviors.
  3. Advocate objectively for yourself and your organization. Use the appropriate chain of command, as long as you are getting responsive action.
  4. Don’t stand on principle; be practical. Don’t expect anyone to have a sense of right and wrong. Rules, codes of conduct and corporate values are often suspended when fear and money are involved.
  5. Remember this is not about you. Your perspective should be that it is in the best interests of everyone – including shareholders – to stop a bully from diminishing the productivity and value of a business or organization.