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HR Handled Right

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office bully

For each harassment complaint you’ve investigated, odds are you’ve dealt with ten times as many equal opportunity jerks. The boss who constantly criticizes, demeans, and undermines his employees. The supervisor who takes delight overworking and exploiting subordinates, or the employee who taunts and intimidates his coworkers. In short, the workplace bully.

Hypersensitive or Held Hostage?

With the continued escalation in harassment complaints, the last thing H.R. professionals need is another behavior problem to deal with. And, given the stressful work environment these days, it’s easy to think that rudeness or incivility is an inevitable part of people working together; after all, who hasn’t been snapped at by a stressed-out boss or coworker?

Bullying, though, is not the occasional sharp retort or sarcastic putdown. Nor is it a misguided attempt to get things done through tough management. Bullying is an ongoing and systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It tends to be an accumulation of many incidences over a long period of time; on its own, a single incident would not necessarily constitute grounds for disciplinary action. Taken together, these instances add up to persistent, abusive behavior designed to make the target feel upset, humiliated and threatened.

For example, according to the U.S. Hostile Workforce Survey 2000, the most popular bullying tactics include:

  • blaming others for errors
  • raising false concerns about or criticizing the work of others
  • making unreasonable demands
  • yelling and screaming
  • threats of job loss, insult, or put-downs
  • inconsistent enforcement of arbitrary rules
  • social exclusion
  • stealing credit for another’s work

Studies vary as to who is most likely to be a bully – some studies say that both men and women are equally likely to misbehave while other studies indicate that 70 percent of all bullies are men. There is little controversy, however, that the bully is most likely to be the boss and that, male or female, the victim is most likely to be female. There’s also consistent evidence that workplace bullying is common – and that it hurts the bottom line. In fact, a recent study suggests that simply being a witness to workplace bullying is linked to sleep problems and increased stress.

The Psychology of Bullying Versus Harassment

Unlike illegal forms of harassment and discrimination, bullying isn’t directed at a person because of his or her religion, gender, age, race or other demographic variable. S/he isn’t interested in obtaining sexual favors or dominating a vulnerable group. In fact, the target of bullying is most likely to be selected because of her popularity and competence, which is perceived as a direct threat to the bully.

Unlike a sexual harasser’s need to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position, bullying is an effort to control a threat (and prevent exposure of inadequacy). Unlike the power motive behind harassment and discrimination, envy and jealousy are the primary drivers of bullying behavior. And, unlike the racial slurs or sexual comments found in illegal forms of harassment, workplace bullying tends to appear as petty criticism, the withholding of critical information, and/or false allegations of underperformance.

Another difference between generic bullying and harassment is the available legal remedies. U.S. laws aren’t set up to deal with an incompetent or cruel supervisor bullying a subordinate unless it is linked to a protected demographic or is so outrageous that it causes diagnosable emotional distress.

However, bullies may not completely escape the long arm of the law. In the United States, I see more and more stress-related workman’s comp claims and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuits because of workplace bullying. For example, two employees in Texas were awarded $250,000 in damages after a supervisor continually yelled at them, put his head down and “charged at them like a bull,” and made at least one employee wear a sign that said “I quit.”

Is There a Bully in your Midst?

Having conducted numerous morale investigations for employers, it never ceases to amaze me how one person’s dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization. Employers may not face the same legal consequences as they would for discriminatory behavior, but the lost productivity and turnover costs are enormous.

Because victims are often afraid to speak out about their experiences and witnesses reluctant to stick their heads out, it can be hard to know if a bully is poisoning your workplace. Here are three ways you can begin to assess how bully-tolerant your work environment currently is:

  1. Conduct an anonymous employee satisfaction survey, asking questions specifically about employee experiences of common bullying tactics.
  2. Conduct regular exit interviews and ask specifically about interpersonal problems that might have led to their resignation. It can be useful to follow up a few months after the employee has resigned; in my experience, they’re more likely to be candid after some time has elapsed.
  3. Keep track of turnover statistics by department, by manager, and by unit. If you spot an anomaly, consider hiring an outsider to conduct an independent morale investigation.

Of course, there’s only so much HR can do; bullies thrive where authority is weak. Until there’s a commitment from top management, a policy is only words on paper and an investigation is meaningless unless there’s some teeth behind it. Still, as an HR professional, you are in a uniquely powerful position to advocate for employees by showing the powers-that-be why – and how – bullying in the workplace impacts the bottom line.

There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times that, once again, has some dismal news about employee satisfaction. Apparently, it’s at an all-time low. Less you think it’s all about the economy, a survey of 5000 workers revealed that the major sources of dissatisfaction had to do with the job itself and, in particular, the immediate supervisor.

The annual performance review, in particular, came under fire as a major source of angst for employees. What was interesting about the critique is that most criticisms I’ve read about performance reviews had to do either with a) the substitution of a formal annual process at the expense of providing regular, ongoing feedback, or b) the structure of the form itself (for example, a forced rating system or vague rating descriptions that provided little useful direction to the employees being reviewed. This article, however, offers the argument that the annual review is less about the employee’s actual performance and more a reflection of how much the supervisor likes the employee (check out Paul in NYC’s ironic interpretation of his performance review ratings in the comments section).

This Job is Killing Me

Another disheartening focus of this article is the significant mental and physical health problems that arise when an employee works in a toxic environment – depression, high blood pressure, heart problems. Not surprisingly, the immediate supervisor had an enormous impact -good bosses served as a buffer against other workplace stressors while destructive leaders amplified other workplace pressures – on the stress level of employees.

While in theory employees have avenues for dealing with a bad boss (human resources, the boss’s boss), in reality, employees often fear retaliation for speaking out against an abusive supervisor. Unfortunately, this can tempt an employee to try to regain a sense of control indirectly, i.e., by attempting to covertly sabotage the boss (calling in sick when there’s an important deadline, turning in work late or doing a bad job on it). This, of course, ultimately hurts the employee.

So What’s the Solution?

I wish I knew. The most disturbing part of this article to me was the barrage of bitter, cynical comments that followed it. While I do work with plenty of companies who hold supervisors accountable for their relationships with their employees, I encounter many more who don’t.

In the meantime, if you’re an employee stuck in a toxic work environment, the onus is on you to take the best care of yourself you can. Find a mentor who can give you emotional support and brainstorm with you about how to handle your bad boss, keep updating your skills and marketability, exercise and eat right and, if things don’t get better, get the heck out of there when you have the chance.

His peers described him as naturally irritable with a fiery temper. His brilliant subordinate resigned because his boss couldn’t keep his emotions in check. He had a large ego and could be easily offended by threats to his sense of honor and strong need for regard.

Sound like anyone you know? Well, you know this man; his name was George Washington. Cursed with a hot temper from birth, George Washington copied all 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” into his exercise book and carried them with him throughout his life. He spent his entire life consciously practicing self-control and courteousness, to the extent that, at his life’s end, others described him as a model of self-mastery and self-control.

Behavior Coaching for the Bad Manager

Fast-forward to 2010 and, every week, I get phone calls from frustrated HR managers and fed-up CEOs who have finallyhad it with a domineering, insensitive or bullying manager. Perhaps a customer has complained about an insensitive remark. Maybe the turnover in the manager’s department has reached an all-time high. More often than not, an employee has filed some sort of offensive behavior complaint.

And yet, in spite of the manager’s unacceptable behavior, s/he contributes significant value to the organization – through technical expertise, industry contacts, or an extremely high work ethic.

The caller is on the horns of a dilemma. Should they throw in the towel and get rid of the manager (and the assets s/he brings to the company) or give him/her a second chance (and risk more problems)? And, if they give him/her a shot, can s/he change?

Can Bad Managers Change?

Yes, bad managers can change, BUT only some of them and only some of the time. Yes, they should be given a chance to – BUT only some of them and only some of the time.

First of all, if a manager has committed a serious ethical violation, s/he should be fired – not coached. A true harasser is not likely to benefit from coaching or invest in it. On the other hand, a smart, overly competitive manager who impatiently interrupts others, dismisses any opinion other than his own, or whose unrealistic demands and lopsided (critical) feedback alienates peers and subordinates alike is a good coaching candidate. In other words, there’s a difference between a true harasser and someone who exhibits bad judgment.

Necessary (But Not Always Sufficient) Ingredients for Change

In order for ineffective managers to benefit from behavior coaching, these ingredients are necessary:

1) Be aware of the need for change. I don’t just mean someone sits the manager down and reads him the riot act. I’m talking about some specific feedback about the impact of his/her behavior on subordinates, peers, etc. This can involve a 360 degree evaluation or an executive coach gathering data through interviews.

2) Be motivated to change. One of the arguments I hear all the time is that you can’t make someone else change. And that’s true. However, just because the initial motivation for coaching is external, i.e., provided by someone else, doesn’t mean the manager can’t buy into the process. When I was a practicing therapist, I was often amazed at how much some of my therapy clients – ordered into the therapy by the courts – actually used the therapy to their benefitonce the trust in our relationship was established. No, they weren’t thrilled to be in my office, but they were often thrilled as a result. (Of course, it goes without being said that the external motivation needs to continue throughout the coaching process and beyond).

3) Know specifically what needs to change and how to replace it. Bad managers act they way they do because a) at some level, it’s worked for them and b) they don’t know a better way to manage. Effective behavior coaching involves evaluating (and often challenging) the manager’s beliefs about his or her current problem behaviors and helping him or her develop specific skills to replace them.

4) Receive constructive feedback, support and encouragement throughout the change process.Without question, bad managers need the stick to get them into coaching. However, once in it, they also need the carrot. In fact, the more domineering and insensitive the manager, the more likely it is that I find insecurity and fear underneath. Connecting with the underlying fears often allows the manager to lessen his defensiveness and be more open to the ongoing feedback s/he needs to support behavior change.

5) Gain some kind of personal reward (reinforcement) from having changed. Ah, here’s where the coaching really gets to be fun. No matter what led the manager to the coaching trough, once s/he begins to experience the rewards of behavior change in his or her environment, it becomes a self-perpetuating process.

The Bottom Line

Change is hard. It’s much easier to hire or promote a good manager than try to remediate a bad one. However, there are times when a manager’s greatest weaknesses are also his greatest strengths; the manager who has unrealistic expectations of others often sets (and achieves) extraordinary goals for himself, the domineering, opinionated boss may also act decisively and have a keen sense of intuition, the impatient, close-minded executive may be stellar at thinking outside the box. Behavior coaching can help these managers channel their natural skills into being better bosses – not bullies.