Effectively Addressing A Workplace Bully Normal conflict resolution processes won't work- it is naive to think that you can reason with a bully.

By Paul Pelletier

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Organizations cannot allow workplace bullies to run rampant, given that they cause enormous and costly negative impacts on employee engagement, productivity, and workplace culture. Organizations must develop proactive strategies and create action plans for addressing the problem. Fortunately, there are many impactful, low risk, strategic steps that make the task both manageable and likely to succeed.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work, or some combination of the three." The four markers for bullying are a pattern of behavior that is deliberate, repetitive, disrespectful and always for the bully's benefit.

How can organizations effectively address workplace bullying? The most important building blocks for successfully addressing workplace bullying are the following:

Establish or revise respectful workplace and ethics policies
All organizations should establish clear and effective bullying policies and procedures for addressing bullying allegations. These are usually incorporated into an organization's Codes of Ethics or Respectful Workplace Policy. If your organization has no anti-bullying policy, lobby hard for change.

Lead by example: "Walk the Workplace Respect Walk"
There is no replacement for authentic, engaged leadership. Just like any important initiative, unless everyone witnesses sincere, meaningful, and consistent anti-bullying messages and behavior from the executives, the goal will never be reached. It may be cliché, but to eliminate bullying the change must come from and be led by example from the top.

Include respectful behavior in performance management metrics
One of the most effective ways to address bullying (and improve workplace culture) is to include performance metrics for respectful behavior in performance plans for every employee. By making the employees accountable for disrespectfulness (including bullying), organizations give managers a tool to directly address bad behavior the moment it surfaces.

Implement confidential reporting processes
Establish fair, effective, and safe methods to report alleged bullying. An unbiased, safe, and user-friendly complaint reporting process is essential. Most organizations fail in this regard, requiring staff to report a bully to their supervisor or human resources. This rarely works for many reasons but, most importantly, because it creates a fear of reporting. When the supervisor is the bully more than 50% of the time, one can quickly see why such a strategy is doomed to fail. If organizations establish a neutral and confidential reporting mechanism, people will no longer be afraid to report a problem. This works to everyone's benefit and will ensure an impartial, confidential, and trustworthy process.

Establish effective investigation processes
Bullying investigations must be unbiased, fair, and fulsome. In order for staff to feel safe, it is essential that investigations are confidential, free from political interference, and result in appropriate responses if allegations are proven. An impartial external investigator should be engaged to conduct this sensitive work. Fair treatment for alleged victims, bullies, and witnesses is needed to engender trust in the process.

Take all bullying reports seriously
Take bullying claims seriously but tread carefully. Until there has been a thorough assessment of the complaint by unbiased and trained personnel, the organization should remain neutral. The important point here is that organizations should respond immediately and professionally. While every report of bullying or bullying-type behavior should be taken seriously, whether they have merit is for the investigation process to determine.

Use effective conflict resolution strategies
Bullying isn't like other conflicts and requires specialized conflict resolution strategies. Normal conflict resolution processes won't work- it is naive to think that you can reason with a bully. Holding a meeting with the bully to "hash out" management's concerns will usually result in the bully aggressively defending their actions, using deceit, blame, and deflection. Mediation can also be another opportunity for the bully to misbehave and instill fear in the target. This is an organizational problem that requires impactful decision-making authority, not a compromise-seeking session. Thus, binding arbitration is normally the best process to use.

If there is a bully in the midst, there are mechanisms for quickly fairly and effectively addressing the problem with all of these policies and processes in place, there is no guarantee that your organization won't ever face a bullying situation. However, when it happens, your organization will be prepared to handle the challenges effectively, with due process. Bullies beware– change is coming!

Related: Family-Like Teams Build Extraordinary Businesses

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Paul Pelletier

LL.B. PMP. Author of The Workplace Bullying Handbook

Paul Pelletier is an international workplace bullying and workplace respect expert and the author of two books, including The Workplace Bullying Handbook. In his provocative, inspiring and always entertaining keynotes and training, Pelletier leverages his decades of experiences as a corporate lawyer, business executive, and project management professional (PMP). A sought-after keynote speaker he has presented at global conferences, including past events in Dubai, Switzerland, England, Italy, and throughout the United States and Canada. Pelletier is also a consultant with PDSi which helps individuals, teams and organizations drive behavioral and cultural change. 

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