There has been extensive media coverage lately on bullying in schools, on social networking sites, and even by text messaging. What we have not heard a lot about is bullying in the workplace, at least until recently when a story appeared in The New York Times about California gubernatorial candidate, Meg Whitman.
Prior to entering politics, Ms. Whitman spent 10 years as chief executive for eBay, taking that company from a small firm of 30 employees and building it into a Fortune 500 company with over 15,000 employees. During her tenure there, she had a reputation for being a demanding leader who did not hesitate to call out employees who did not meet her standards. In June of 2007, she may have gone too far. She was accused of forcefully shoving another employee in a conference room at eBay’s headquarters. The dispute was later resolved under the supervision of a private mediation firm. Part of the resolution was an agreement to keep the matter confidential, so specific details are not available.
While this one case may have made national headlines, there are many more instances of workplace bullying that do not make the news. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington, workplace bullying is defined as verbal abuse; threatening, humiliating, or intimidating behavior; or sabotage which prevents work from being done or endangers the targets health. A recent study conducted by the institute found that 37 percent of the workforce reports being bullied at work.
So, how should you handle a bully if you encounter one in your workplace? It’s usually best to confront the bully privately and discuss the situation. Remain calm and composed, and provide examples of the behavior you are referring to. Many times, they may try to claim it was “all in fun” or imply that you are taking things the wrong way. Be polite, but firm and restate your examples and why you find them unacceptable. It’s a very good idea to also document the entire conversation afterwards.
If you don’t see any results after talking to the bully, the next step is to talk to your manager. Again, be calm, stick to the facts, and provide the documentation you have from your meeting with the employee. Then, document that meeting as well. In a perfect world, your manager will take the necessary steps and address this with the bully. However, many managers are either not comfortable or not equipped to deal with this situation, and therefore don’t do anything. If that is the case, you should contact your human resource department next. Provide them with specific examples of the behavior, and the documentation you have compiled from your meeting with the bully and with your manager, and calmly ask that they now address the situation.
Until recently, there has been very little legal guidance covering bullying in the workplace. However, several states have introduced bills to make it illegal or at least subject to civil action in court. If you are unable to resolve your situation using the steps outlined above, consider talking to an attorney that specializes in employment law. In many instances, a case can be made that the employer is allowing a hostile work environment. Whatever you do, it’s important to remember that the bullying is not your fault. You have a right to feel safe and comfortable in the workplace and you should not be afraid to demand just that from your employer.