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May 16, 2013

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.