HR Insights, HR Management

Here’s Why Bullies Are Taking Over Your Organization

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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve heard plenty about bullies in the workplace.

You’ve heard how bad it is. You’ve heard about the missed work days and the increased medical costs and the disability claims and the lawsuits. You’ve heard about the disruption and the drama and the colossal waste of hours employees spend managing others’ aggression instead of producing. Instead of creating. Instead of innovating.

You may have even read the statistic that workplace bullying costs U.S. employers nearly $250 million annually.

And you’ve decided that you don’t give a crap.

But now why has a sane and savvy business person such as yourself adopted this attitude? Assuming you aren’t a bully (and I’m going to go ahead and assume that) why are you sanctioning this destructive and counterproductive behavior?

I think I know why.

You’re not a believer

The poet Charles Baudelaire is given credit for saying, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.”

Why does this remind me of your bullying problem? Because you don’t believe this is really happening.

You don’t believe there is any such animal as a corporate bully. You believe in “tough managers” and “sensitive employees,” but you don’t believe that people in authority would ever misuse their power for their own unfathomable gains.

Well, shame on you. Read the damn newspaper once in a while. Nasty people don’t just work at other people’s companies.

You don’t want to manage conflict

I’m sympathetic, because who wants to be bothered managing petty conflict? Can’t we all just get along?

Come on — you already know the answer to that. We may all be under one (metaphoric) roof, but we’ve got different belief systems, agendas, motivations, desires, and ways of doing things. Despite this, lots of times we can manage just fine to find common ground toward a common goal.

But sometimes we can’t. And some of us, really, really don’t want to.

We want what we want. We don’t actually care what anyone else wants. And sometimes, we fight dirty to get what we want, too. We might get personal or use intimidation tactics or (gasp) lie.

Yes, people do lie at work. Pardon my bluntness, but don’t be naïve. And when we do these things, someone like YOU has to step in and make it clear that this is not the way we do business around here. This is not the way we respect our co-workers. This is not the way we build teams and reach our goals.

But you won’t.

You’re entirely too optimistic

Perhaps you’re the type who thinks if you avoid a problem long enough it will go away. And, sometimes you’re right. Some problems will “work themselves out” with time.

But not your bullying problem. Bullies are relentlessly aggressive, and they never stop wanting stuff. So whenever they want something, they’ll stomp on somebody to get it, if they must.

Oh, and make no mistake — these bullies are not on YOUR side. Fulfilling their job description (sort of) might coincide once in a while with getting what they want, but understand that it’s just a coincidence if not an outright manipulation tactic to keep you in the dark.

Bullies do not care about your business, your customers, your employees, or you. They do what they do because it suits them, period.

Employees have picked up on your example

Your employees are watching you. Your actions and inactions tell them far more clearly than your corporate Values Statement does about what you care about and what you don’t.

So the bullies know they can abuse others with no interference from you, the targets know they’re on their own, and the witnesses know they better mind their own business because they don’t want to become targets.

In short, the bullies get to rule because you’ve made it clear to everyone that it works.

HR is powerless, untrained, blind, or all of the above

Assuming you have an HR department, I wouldn’t want to be in it. It sounds horrible.

Perhaps your HR folks see the problem and have talked to you about it — a few times, even — but you won’t listen and you won’t help them resolve it. Or, perhaps someone in HR is the bully or assists the bully. Sad. (What’s also sad is that increasingly, HR is a target for bullying.) Or, perhaps no one in HR knows enough to tell the difference between a “personality conflict” and a one-sided attempt to dominate.

Whatever the reasons, HR is useless here, and the bullies are loving it.

So there you have it. That’s why bullies are taking over your organization. Simply put, you’re letting them.

And it’s not pretty. That $250 million is no joke, and the amount of emotional labor your employees spend managing your bullying problem — labor that could be applied to resolving your customer’s problems — is no joke either.

So please, handle your issue. Open you eyes. Give a damn.

Invest in training. Invest in coaching. Make the tough call. Your employees and your business will be the better for it.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.
  • http://twitter.com/lruettimann Laurie Ruettimann

    I like the Baudelaire quote. Sorta. One of my biggest concerns is that HR focuses on what it can’t change instead of what it can change.

    HR can’t change the human condition. Competition. Abuse. Destruction. Death. From the Mother’s Day shootings in New Orleans to the horrible abductions in Cleveland, the world is a dark place. And the global corporate environment is not immune from the same instincts that make seemingly normal people do horrible things.

    What we CAN do — for starters — is the same thing that police officers and politicians do: clarify rules, enforce laws and hope that the group norms are healthy enough to keep people in check.

    Some things that do work beyond enforcement and compliance? Paying everybody a decent wage and being transparent about compensation so that our corporate policies don’t send a message of cultural unworthiness and stratification. And we can certainly address conflict — but I really believe that we address conflict by removing the faux legal language that HR loves and getting real with zero tolerance.

    But one more thing? Let’s not misuse and overuse the word “bullying” when it’s really just an aggressive and legitimate act of competition or self-preservation.

    Last time I checked, it’s legal to WIN but it is illegal to hit someone (unless you’re married to that person in Texas).

    • musingsmom

      Hi Laurie (it’s Crystal–I can’t keep track of all these dang passwords!)

      Thanks for adding your voice to this issue. You’re right of course, HR can’t change the human condition. (I know for certain THIS HR professional can’t …)

      But what we CAN do is educate ourselves about cultural and workplace trends and listen to our employees. Corporate bullies do exist, and they most certainly are NOT engaging in legitimate acts of competition or self-preservation. Their acts are patterned and malevolent, often take advantage of power disparities, and serve no useful business purpose. In other words, the actions don’t advance business goals in the slightest. And by the way, no one can claim that a boss who bullies his subordinates is engaging in healthy competition–doesn’t make sense.

      I also agree that we shouldn’t misuse the word. It leads to the whole “wolf crying” phenomenon, and people stop listening for real. But again, that’s why it’s so important that leaders (including those in HR) teach ourselves to recognize the real deal so we SEE it when it’s happening.

      Oh, and one other thing we can do–FIRE THEM.

      • Ella L

        Thank you for this. It becomes even more challenging when HR is the bully.

        • Crystal Spraggins

          You’re welcome, and yes it does. Again, no easy answers.

      • anon

        Difficult to do when it’s the CEO/Owner/Founder

        • Crystal Spraggins

          So true. To quote a reader who emailed me privately, there are no easy answers to this problem when senior leadership is involved or apathetic.

  • Gregory Sparzo

    Crystal, All of the above are very common in many companies, as you know. It is the rare exception that does not. I like Laurie R’s prescription below…FIRE THEM… Read Bob Sutton’s The No A**hole Rule for a good place to start.

    • Crystal Spraggins

      Hi Gregory! Actually the FIRE THEM was my prescription. It’s posted under Musingsmom ’cause that’s apparently some other ID I have from somewhere! (Musings is the name of my blog.)

      Anyhoo, yes I like Bob Sutton’s no nonsense approach as well as his admittance that many times, the target won’t get any relief until she finds a new job. It’s sad but true, and I wish it were different. All this and there are still those who would insist that the targets are making their own problems, when in my experience (which is not just MY experience, by the way) the target has worked really hard to be whatever the bully wants before coming to the conclusion that it’s impossible. He can’t be less inquisitive, he can’t have less integrity, he can’t care less about doing a good job, he can’t read his bully’s mind, etc.

  • Sarah

    I have introduced a dignity at work support network in my workplace
    Whilst this is still in its infancy I have noticed lack of employee engagement yet the numbers of people who feel they have suffered bullying has recently increased according to a staff survey.

    • Crystal Spraggins

      Hi Sarah, I’m not surprised by the results of your survey, although some would say it’s only a reflection of increased talk about the issue and a “watering down” of the definition of bullying.

      I’d love to hear more about your support network. What is it designed to do and have you received support from top-level management? Please feel free to email me privately if you’d like to respond but not in a public way. Meanwhile, thanks for your comment!

  • Michiel Heyns

    Crystal, thank you, this was valuable to read. I continuously communicate our corporate values to executives, managers and employees to create an atmosphere of respect and a culture where innovation and creative thinking is praised. I was also blessed with bullies, but, they were all fired – some over the telephone giving the CCMA the opportunity to quantify the settlement – which was still the best thing to do.

    • Crystal Spraggins

      “I was also blessed with bullies, but, they were all fired…”
      Yahoo! Thanks for making my day, Michiel. Also, it’s great to hear that there are companies that truly do welcome innovation and creative thinking. Refreshing!