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by J.D. O'Connor | March 10, 2009

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Even in this enlightened age it is still possible for the schoolyard bully of your childhood to prevail as an adult in the modern workplace.

Their outwardly pugnacious nature may be hidden behind a business suit, the threats may be less obvious, but the fact remains that an office bully can still immobilize a workforce as surely as they ruled your playground.

"Bullying poses a serious health hazard to those targeted by compromising their psychological and physical health," says Tina Patzer, a human resource consultant and Mucho.com advisor with more than 15 years experience in the corporate arena. "Silent, frozen co-workers worsen the problem out of their own fears and frustrations. Eventually, the workplace is paralyzed by fear, incapable of productive work and susceptible to costly downtime."

One worker recently contacted Patzer for advice on handling her situation, which the worker described as "a living nightmare" of fear and intimidation created by a mid-level manager who so terrified his colleagues that the writer declined to give her name out of fear of retribution.

"This person is extremely calculating," the worker wrote. "He is careful to make his threats out of earshot of others, so that no one is able to corroborate the story of the threatened employee."

Threats often involve promises of physical violence or loss of a job, Patzer says, and if the employee is less-than-secure about his or her position within the company, the method can be effective.

Only if one or more workers does come forward, Patzer says, can the company take steps to halt the bully's pattern of abuse.

"Bullying your company is a matter that needs to be managed with sensitivity and swift thorough actions," she says. "A confidential investigation must be conducted and great care must be given to protect the anonymity of the targeted employee or employees."

Not only must the company be prepared to launch an investigation, according to Patzer, but the firm must be ready for the findings and consequences of the investigation and be prepared to act - regardless of the position the bully holds.

"Both sides of the equation need to be considered," she says. "Allowing the victims access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or mental health counseling may help relieve some of the workplace anxiety."

As for the bullying employee, Patzer says the findings of the investigation should determine if they should be placed on probation and required to attend counseling - such as anger management - or dismissed.

"Upon completing the course successfully the situation will be reviewed and a determination for re-entry to the workplace considered," says Patzer. "Quite possibly, terminating the bully may be the only solution to heal your company."

She suggests the firm implement and enforce a "zero-tolerance" policy prohibiting workplace bullying (as well as other hostile/potentially violent acts and make sure the company's policies are clearly stated in the employee handbook.

"Regardless of the investigation findings the message must be clear," Patzer says. "Aggressive behavior (bullying, psychological or physical aggression) will simply not be tolerated - end of story."

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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