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How Can Workplace Bullying be Prevented?

Posted by Ryan Howard on Fri, Mar 04, 2016


For anyone who has been the victim of bullying, you know the psychological and physical toll it takes. For victims of adult bullies, especially in the workplace, the damage goes beyond your place of employment and frequently impacts life outside of work as well. Today's workplace is hyper-competitive and unfortunately, with that competition comes abusive and hostile tactics designed to take down even the best employees. 

Preventing workplace bullying is the responsibility of both employees and their employers. Here's how workplace bullying can be prevented.

Identifying Workplace Bullying

One of the first challenges in preventing or stopping workplace bullying is defining and identifying bullying behavior. Workplace bullying can typically be defined as repeated and unreasonable mistreatment in the following ways¹:

  • Verbal, physical or emotional abuse
  • Humiliating or intimidating behavior (verbal or non-verbal)
  • Interfering with work contributions (sabotage)

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullies tend to target those who are perceived to be a threat, to the bully or what the bully wants, in some way. Therefore, many targeted victims are the most skilled or veteran employees, well-liked, ethical, honest and helpful. In fact, many victims refuse to act in retribution or aggression, therefore the bullying continues, generally unknown to the employer.

Bullying in the workplace has many warning signs, but to the target appears as:

  • a perpetrator's need to control or manipulate
  • stealing credit for another's work in order to gain status or praise
  • information or activities withheld from the target or acts against the target
  • a perpetrator's coercion or involvement of others to "gang up" on or isolate the victim
  • damaging, leading to stress-related physical harm, emotional or psychological health harm, social status harm or economical harm.

Who are the office bullies?

Unfortunately, in 72% of the cases², the perpetrator is management. These are cases where management will pit one employee over another for a promotion or raise, causing attack or employee intimidation. Ambition and narcissism take over, disguising itself as charisma or eagerness, which appeals to management. Many of those in management may not wish to see a subordinate gain credit for hard work if the manager's job is at stake.

A "dog-eat-dog" environment, where employees must defeat others in a Hunger Games style of climbing the corporate ladder, easily contributes to a bully/victim personality contest. High levels of competition for scarce resources yields high stress and a hostile work environment. Personality defects and anger issues also rise to the surface with stress or hostility. If an employee has tendencies towards narcissism, obsession or egocentricity, they may also appear as bullies while under duress. Some may act out their anger in an obvious way while others do so much more covertly.

How to Prevent Bullying

Because many of the activities are done in secret, and because the targeted victims may refuse to speak up, both employees and employers can work together to prevent workplace bullying in the following ways:

  • Create clear and concise workplace policies and enforcement against bullying - These policies must apply equally to employees and management.
  • Create a healthy and safe work environment - This includes training employees to identify bullying behavior and how to address it. 
  • Offer support and resources - Allow employees the safety of counselors and the protection of anonymity if they need to speak up about workplace bullying. 
  • Pre-Employment screening -  Pre-employment background screening could identify previous workplace infractions or other criminal behaviors. Behavioral interviews could also reveal underlying personality disorders or attitudes that could go against a healthy company culture. 

Talk about workplace bullying

One of the best tactics in preventing workplace bullying is to talk about it at your organization. Some employees may not recognize that they are being bullied and others may be too ashamed to speak up. Talking about it removes the secrecy of it and brings it into the light. 

Your hiring process, from your job listing through the background screening process to the final interview, are all opportunities to make a candidate aware of anti-bullying policies in your workplace. Understanding that these behaviors are not welcome and will be identified is a powerful way to cull your candidates down to employees that will create a healthy and safe workplace for all.

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Topics: Human Resources, Employee Relationship Management, Employment Background Screening