Jen Teague shudders when she thinks back to the job where she was bullied for five straight years. “From the second I walked in to the second I left, my heart was racing. I was in constant panic mode,” she remembers. “I was going to counseling, getting on medication, doing whatever I possibly could to avoid thinking about what was going on.”
What was going on was a barrage of yelling from a higher-up colleague at her workplace. Every time she was on a conference call with multiple people in the room, this person would berate and yell at her. The abuse was unrelenting, she says. Teague tried to confront her colleague several times, but the person didn’t want to talk. The business was small and didn’t have a human resources department. She felt alone and helpless, she says.
Soon after being reprimanded for including the “th” after a date (“my boss hated that”), she quit and moved to a different job several states over. Today she is much happier and goes to work without the fear of bullying behavior.
Teague’s experience is unfortunately common. Back in 2014, authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield conducted a study and found that 96 percent of respondents reported being victims of workplace bullying at some point in their careers. Of that, 62 percent said the bullying manifested with sabotage, 52 percent reported threats, and 4 percent claimed being victim of physical intimidation or assault.
Confusion on the employer’s side
Uzair Ahmed is founder and president of instaMek, an on-demand mechanic startup based in Edmonton, Alberta. He launched his company in 2015, hired a few interns and soon was faced with a bullying situation that quickly turned ugly. One of his female interns was bullying another female intern by ignoring and isolating her. Ahmed was alerted to the behavior, but the information he was given was inaccurate: The bully was blaming the victim when it should have been the other way around.
Ahmed, unaware that he was being misled, confronted the innocent party. Days later he noticed the actual bully posting malicious messages about the victim on social media and realized he’d handled the situation wrong. He fired the bully, but soon the victim quit. “I messed up,” he says. “She got a job somewhere else, which is a bummer because she was a good worker. I wanted to hire her full time.”
Handling a bullying situation
Ahmed learned a lot from his experience, primarily that every business owner needs to know what is going on in his or her company. “I started having casual conversations with my workers, especially my managers,” he says. “I’ve found that if you sit back, relax, and talk with them, you find out what is really going on.”
Teague says leaders should have a zero tolerance for gossip in the workplace. “Leaders need to say something,” she says. “They don’t even need to point fingers, but they could just explain that bullying will never happen at the office, and that might be enough to stop someone. And get rid of gossip. If there is no gossip, there won’t be any bullying.”
Susan Katz, a certified board facilitator with The Alternative Board, a group of business coaches and advisor board leaders in Baltimore, offers the following five-step bullying cessation process for employers:
1. Pull those in conflict into a room for a joint discussion.
2. Give each person time to explain their point of view without interruption from the person with an opposing view. Once explained, have each person repeat back what he or she heard the other person say.
3. Have each side express what they would like to have happen in the future and why.
4. Ask both parties to brainstorm possible solutions on new ways to approve the issue. Ask each side to think from the person’s perspective.
5. Once a solution is agreed upon, ask both sides how they will deal with conflict should it arise in the future. As the manager, coach them to a solution; don’t solve it for them. If they solve it themselves, they will be more likely to come to a solution long term.