Many people think of bullying as something that occurs mostly in schools. Unfortunately, it often continues well past childhood, with a whopping 60.3 million Americans affected by bullying in the workplace. Because a hostile work environment is never good for business, leaders need to be ready to identify – and eliminate – workplace bullying.

What Is It?

The Workplace Bullying Institute offers this definition: “Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” It is “threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.”

Workplace bullying can take many forms. Some are obvious, such as constant teasing or shouting at a subordinate or colleague. But it can be harder to put a finger on other types of bullying, such as interrupting others, excluding co-workers from meetings or social gatherings, stealing credit for others’ work, micromanaging excessively, and gossiping.

The well-documented harmful effects of bullying on individuals include health problems such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, panic attacks and ulcers. Bullied employees also experience drops in their productivity, decision-making ability and concentration. After all, it’s not easy to do top-notch work while you’re constantly on edge.

Workplace bullying affects more than just the perpetrator and the victim. A drop in one person’s productivity can spread throughout the entire company (especially if management knows of the bullying and does nothing about it). With the proliferation of sites such as Glassdoor, managers and organizations that allow toxic work environments to persist may find it hard to recruit new hires, because a bad reputation travels fast (and far).

How to Address Bullying

Bullying is an expression of power: The perpetrator wants to exert power over someone else. Denying someone that power is one way to limit his or her ability to be a bully.

First, take a page from many anti-bullying initiatives and calmly dismiss the bully with “I don’t have time to engage with you right now.” Confronting bullies publicly and calling out their actions might shame them into stopping. In a meeting, for example, “That sounded pretty condescending; was that how you meant it?” or, “Please don’t interrupt; I would like to finish my thought first” can stop bullies in their tracks.

If the bully is your boss, you need to handle the situation more carefully. The manager/employee relationship has an inherent power imbalance that makes deflection and confrontation tricky. Discuss the bullying with your co-workers; if they are having similar problems, you can discuss the situation with your boss together. (“There’s strength in numbers,” goes the old saying – and bringing an entire department to the table may prevent retaliatory measures by the manager.)

If you find yourself pitted against your boss alone, a one-on-one conversation may be unavoidable. During this conversation, describe how your boss’ behavior makes you feel (e.g., “When you yell at me, it kills my confidence, and I have a hard time refocusing on the task – and that isn’t good for either of us”). If the manager is constantly berating your work, ask him or her to clarify specifically where you are falling short. Ask your boss to communicate in more productive and positive terms so that you can actually work to improve your performance.

Getting HR Involved

If efforts to speak with the bully (whether a co-worker or a manager) don’t resolve the problem, it’s time to go to HR. Be sure to document bullying incidents as thoroughly as possible. In addition to date, time and location information, an incident report should describe exactly what happened as well as whether anyone else witnessed the event.

The Last Resort

If an organization is reluctant to help you in the face of bullying, you will have to decide whether it’s worthwhile to stay or if it’s better to move on (and save your mental and physical health). If you decide to leave a company because of bullying, make sure you’re fully aware of and follow the company policy for reporting bad behavior. Not following those procedures may limit your legal rights.

Each bullied individual has to do his or her own calculations and make the choice about whether to stay or to go. If you’re a leader or manager whose company refuses (or is unable) to address bullying behavior, you also have to decide for yourself whether that’s an organization you want to stay with.

In this age of high turnover and talent shortages, company leaders should be eager to do what it takes to keep their skilled employees on board – which includes eliminating any traces of bullying (including the bully!) the moment they notice it. Your company’s bottom line and your reputation depend on it.

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