Telltale Signs You Have a Workplace Bully

Workplace bullying affects 35 percent of employees, according to a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), a Bellingham, Wash.-based nonprofit organization. Gary Namie co-founded WBI with his wife, Ruth, after her first-hand experience with bullying. In an interview, he shared his best advice to entrepreneurs for managing this nefarious problem. What follows are edited excerpts of the interview.

Entrepreneur: How can you recognize a bully in the workplace?

Gary Namie: Bullying differs from tough management because it's driven by the perpetrator's personal agenda and has nothing to do with improving the bottom line or accomplishing a mission. You might see it in how people are speaking to or about each other. Listen for harsh, unfair feedback about some employees. If you sense team members are being ostracized or being given unfair tasks or deadlines, a bully might be behind it. Any time your gut tells you there's something wrong with how an employee is being treated, you need to address it because it's going to hurt productivity and cost you good people.

Entrepreneur: Are there "types" of bullies?

Namie: There are four, but a really competent bully will adopt several of them:

  • The Screaming Mimi is the fist-pounding, vein-bulging maniac who publicly tries to make an example of others, using fear and humiliation as management tools.
     
  • The Constant Critic gets employees behind closed doors and rips them to shreds. The irony is this bully targets people because of their competence.
     
  • Jekyll and Hyde is the smarmy, passive-aggressive type. This bully has an ingratiating style that wins favor with management, and then uses rumor and gossip to destroy others' reputations.
     
  • The Gatekeeper is a decision-maker who undermines you by denying what you need to succeed because it makes him or her feel powerful. She undermines important elements like budgets and deadlines, setting up others to fail.

Entrepreneur: What should you do if you find a bully in your company? 

Namie: First, make sure you're sending the right message from the top: Intimidation is not acceptable. Develop a written code of conduct covering performance expectations and acceptable forms of behavior. It's fine to say, "We're going to be hard-driving, hard-working, and profit-driven." But you also need to say, "We're not going to beat each other up in the process. We're going to treat each other fairly, or there will be consequences."

Employees need channels to report bullying when it happens, such as through a human resources contact or someone other than the manager who may be the problem. Spell out what happens if bullying is discovered: Warnings, impact on performance reviews and, in severe cases, termination. Apply those consequences consistently or they will be meaningless. As the company leader, you need to eradicate bullying when you find it because it's like a toxic gas in your company, killing employees and chasing away talent.