Changing Bullying Behavior in the Workplace

Bullying behavior can be addressed with counseling, improvement plans, suspension or termination.
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Unwarranted criticism, social isolation and micro-management are unreasonable behaviors that bullies enact in the workplace. Victims may experience stress, depression and other disorders due to the bully's deliberate, intimidating actions. However, unless the harassment is based on race, national origin or a few other criteria, workplace bullying is not illegal in the United States. Therefore, it's the employer's responsibility to intervene to prevent bullying behavior from dragging down company morale or imposing other costs, such as employee turnover and lower productivity.

Informal Counseling

    Informal counseling is appropriate if a single unprofessional incident, such as screaming or threats, occurs. In this case, a manager meets privately with the offender to discuss the event and explain how the bully might respond in more appropriate ways. For example, “Swearing at your co-workers is not acceptable. If you disagree with someone, take a breath, then deliver your words calmly.” An intervention program for workplace bullying, developed in 2007 at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine by Dr. Gerald Hickson and associates, suggests that by explaining appropriate ways to respond to day-to-day workplace events, the manager directly sets limits on what behavior the company will tolerate and indirectly outlines what behavior is not acceptable.

Formal Counseling

    Formal complaints of employee tantrums or sabotage, or a surveillance system video of a work group "ganging up on" an employee, may indicate patterns -- rather than one-time events -- of inappropriate behavior, which pose safety and quality risks to an organization. In such cases, the bully's manager should respond quickly to alert the offender to the complaints, reminding her of the company's anti-bullying policies and the appropriate ways to respond to day-to-day events. Gary Namie writes in “The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization” that the manager should emphasize that the bully's actions violate the company's standards and policies to ensure that the bully recognizes it is the behavior -- not the individual -- that is unacceptable. The manager should also keep records of any bullying incident, witnesses involved and employee counseling sessions.

Formal Disciplinary Action

    Jennifer Alsever writes in a 2008 CBS Money Watch article, “How to Handle a Workplace Bully,” that if the bullying behavior continues or becomes more severe, company leadership should continue to document the behavior and implement a formal, disciplinary action plan. The plan makes the employee accountable, specifies the behavior to be improved and identifies the support services that may assist the bully in revising her behavior. For example, a company may offer a medical evaluation and treatment program, and classes on professional behavior. During the intervention period, penalties might be imposed, such as removing the bully from projects or demoting her. The plan should also state the future discipline should the bully's behavior not improve. For example, continued employment might be contingent on change.

Suspension or Termination

    It is essential that a company initiate additional disciplinary action if the formal disciplinary action plan is unsuccessful and the bullying behavior continues. According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, such action may include suspension or termination, and reporting the offense to a government agency, if appropriate. A company’s code of conduct policies and procedures determine the action the company must take. If the employee exhibits discriminatory or violent behavior, or substance abuse, the company must report the incident to authorities immediately.

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