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Workplace Bullies and How To Deal With Them

Wednesday, June 04, 2014   By Mike Reddy


The dynamics of staffing a small business are becoming more challenging. In a couple of recent business coaching assignments I’ve noticed that even with the appearance of a friendly and jovial culture, there’s been an undercurrent of friction between some team members.

Unaddressed workplace bullying can pose a real challenge to most small business owners who haven’t had the opportunity to be trained in team management techniques. It can have a real impact on the entire team, pulling down morale and generally leaching negativity into the mix, not to mention the possibility of ending up as a legal matter.

Often, the hardest part is recognising a workplace bully. It can sometimes be disguised simply as sarcastic humour or even dry cynicism.  Workplace bullies can present themselves as somewhat disgruntled yet humorous team members.

No matter how hard it seems, learning how to spot the problem can often be the best way to come up with a solution.

You will tend to find that workplace bullies can often use a number of forms of intimidation and even manipulation to get something from other team members. By learning to differentiate these particular traits from other team members who may simply be driven by ambition can be the key to addressing the problem. Allowed to fester, the act of showing disrespect to others can easily become part of the business culture.

Some other signs that business managers should be aware of that can become a symptom of a bigger problem are:

  • Yelling, raising the voice or shouting. This can be in front of others but more usually it is a private setting which, surprisingly, can often be tolerated because of that.

  • Name-calling. Be wary of team members being addressed by other names. That cute sounding nickname may be offensive to the recipient. Take them aside and ask them where the name came from and if they mind being referred to in that way.  Don't make assumptions.

  • Disrespectful or inappropriate comments that seem to have a personal connection.

  • Excessive criticism of a team member’s performance.

  • Undermining a team member’s work, perhaps even with an element of sabotage on a subliminal level that is likely to result in poor performance.  This can include deliberately overloading someone with an increased workload, setting them up to be overwhelmed.

  • Withholding information or actively working to keep someone out of the loop, making people feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

Any of these traits can signify that a conversation between you, the team member in question and even an HR expert, might be the best thing to do. Nipping things in the bud is the best way to prevent a crisis in the workplace. Otherwise it can escalate and, before too long, be completely out of control.

Ensure you develop a culture that provides your team members with the confidence to approach you to speak about any kind of concern they may have, including feeling bullied. Creating a space where team members feel safe and respected is vital to ensuring you achieve your business objectives.

Ensure that any conversations are documented. Most business owners lack the expertise to navigate this process properly. Make sure you involve your local industry group, trade association or Chamber of Commerce .

Whatever you choose to do, ensure your team members know that bullying will not be tolerated. Consider including a “respect” clause into your employment contracts. This will help make it clear what is and what is not appropriate in your workplace.

Believe it or not, as the boss of your organisation it’s feasible that you might be viewed as the bully. Just be sure to keep your ear to the ground and listen and look out for any signals that might raise the possibility that you are not perceived in the same light that you might have thought. As with the best of us, more often or not you may find you have much to improve on!

Mike Reddy is a Chartered Accountant, business coach and advisor helping businesses in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Gold Coast to easily increase their profits and cash flow. He is currently President of the North Sydney Chamber of Commerce, a Regional Councillor for Sydney North East and a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Sydney leadership team. As well as advising businesses, Mike presents business development seminars and webinars and is regularly contacted by the media to comment on small business matters. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.