Workplace bullying has become a hot topic. Employers are paying increased attention to the issue since many states are considering legislation that would create remedies for employees victimized by bullying.
Dennis A. Davis, Ph.D., National Director of Client Training for Ogletree Deakins, is a recognized expert in the field of workplace violence. I recently discussed the issue of workplace bullying with Dr. Davis, including what constitutes bullying, its effects, and how to detect, prevent, and remedy it.
JATHAN JANOVE: What’s your definition of workplace bullying?
DENNIS DAVIS: I use one developed by David Yamada: Bullying is the repeated infliction of intentional abusive behavior which interferes with an employee doing his or her job, has the potential to cause physiological or psychological harm, and that a reasonable person would find hostile or offensive.
JJ: In what ways does bullying present problems for employers?
DD: Three ways: First, there’s a correlation between workplace bullying and violence—the former is often a precursor to the latter. Second, many harassment claims are not truly rooted in employees’ race, sex, religion, etc., but are based on bullying. Reducing bullying reduces harassment claims. Third, bullying lowers employee engagement. When experiencing or witnessing bullying, people don’t want to come to work, they don’t go the extra mile, and they become disengaged.
JJ: Bullying isn’t always obvious to third parties. Victims often don’t complain. What should an employer look for?
DD: One concern involves teasing or banter. It may seem like playful give-and-take, but three signs that it’s not are:
- the banter is not reciprocal—the person receiving it does not return it;
- the behavior is targeted—particular people are continually on the receiving end; and
- it’s personal—the teasing is about someone’s supposed innate weakness, deficiency, or inferiority.
JJ: What should employers do to prevent bullying?
DD: Start with your policy. What does it say? Most employers have harassment policies, and many have workplace violence policies. However, their policies should also cover the space in between—bullying. Employers should explicitly describe and prohibit bullying behavior as well as provide avenues of recourse. Supervisors should be trained on the policy including what to do when problems arise.
JJ: How should employers confront bullying behavior?
DD: Many bullies aren’t really aware of their behavior. Their loud voice, angry tone, imposing size or look is part of their identity, and their aggressive behavior has been rewarded, thereby reinforcing it. If bullies are called out on their behavior—what they do, and how it impacts others—often they’ll change, especially if coaching or counseling is included.
JJ: What kind of coaching will help a bully change his or her ways?
DD: I hold a mirror up to the person—we focus on their intensity, their voice, and their word choices. I teach them how to modulate these factors: How to add a filter to their interactions to slow them down a bit and let them think before reacting. It’s the classic statement that when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Teach them other tools—ones that don’t produce fear, humiliation, or hostility.
JJ: Have you encountered situations where senior leaders have been resistant to the idea that they are bullies or their subordinates are?
DD: Yes. CEOs and other senior leaders are often unaware of the impact they have just by the position they occupy. They may think “I’m just another person doing my job.” In reality, if you’re the “Big Boss,” that’s just not true. Senior executives have had years of unrealistic interactions with subordinates. As a result, they develop blind spots, both regarding their behavior and that subordinates treat them quite differently than how they treat others.
JJ: What do you do in such circumstances to help produce positive change?
DD: The technique is called “transferal of behavior.” With an employee below the top level, I’ll work on getting them to see differences in how they treat their subordinates versus how they treat executives above them; I’ll have them “transfer” their way of dealing with senior leaders into how they interact with lower-ranked employees. With people who don’t have a boss, I have them focus on interactions they’ve had with a spouse or adult child in which they learned that they were more aggressive, demanding, or intense than they realized, and had to adjust their behavior. With CEOs, getting them to focus on how they interact with the board of directors can help the transfer process.
JJ: These are great coaching techniques but are there times that you would recommend the discipline or discharge route?
DD: Certainly. If we’re talking repeated behavior despite coaching and counseling, if hands have been laid on, or if there have been threats—it’s a new ball game. Disciplinary action would certainly be part of it. Even so, the focus should still be on problem-solving versus punishment.