In a recent survey, 96% of respondents admitted that they have experienced workplace bullying.
And those bullies have staying power: 89% have been engaging in bad behavior for more than a year. Fifty-four percent hit the five-year mark, while some respondents said bullies have been in the same jobs for more than 30 years. The survey was conducted by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of the bestsellers Crucial Conversations and Influencer.
While anti-bullying campaigns have been so prevalent in the media, schools, and even workplaces in recent years, they haven’t really changed behavior, Maxfield says. They also haven’t changed people’s responses to behavior that ranges from being inappropriately rude or aggressive in speech to being physically threatening or abusive. Employees often don’t want to get involved or risk retaliation, since bullies are often in a position of power, he adds.
"People are aware, but the main strategy many use to handle bullies is silence and avoidance. But silence is not golden. Silence is permission," he says.
The numbers in the survey were disturbing. Two-thirds said they deal with bullies by avoiding them, while one in five don’t know their organization’s process for reporting bullying. Only 6% said their company’s anti-bullying policies stopped bullying. In addition:
- 62% saw sabotaging of others work or reputations
- 52% saw browbeating, threats, or intimidation
- 4% saw physical intimidation or assault
There are effective ways to deal with bullies and speaking up about actual instances of bullying is how awareness actually gets raised, Maxfield says. If your co-workers or you are the victims of abusive behavior, take the following steps.
Document it. Write down the dates and times of the instances, along with any witnesses. Be as specific and detailed as possible and keep a copy of the log at home or somewhere safe.
Maxfield advises including and precipitating events or behavior you noticed before the event that you’re documenting. This may help you spot patterns. For example, if the bully is always abusive in meetings after lunch or at which certain participants attend, you may gain insight into patterns.
Check workplace policies. Your workplace should have a bullying and harassment policy that details unacceptable behavior and the reporting procedure. Follow the procedure—unless, of course, that requires you to report the behavior to the bully. In that case, look for a confidante in HR or another manager who can act as your ally.
Address it. Depending on the situation and, if you don’t feel doing so will put you at risk, speak to the bully about his or her behavior.
Maxfield says it’s important to make the bully feel safe and not humiliated, which will make the situation worse. Speaking privately will also avoid him or her "playing to an audience and acting out," he adds.
Stick to the facts. State the situation and your issue with it, without editorializing—and discuss how the two of you can communicate more effectively. He admits that, for serial bullies who engage in this behavior regularly, that may not be effective. In situations where you see someone else in harm’s way, such as being subjected to physical assault, it may be time to involve the authorities.
Bullies may feel as though their behavior is justified or that they have been wronged in some way. Maxfield says it’s important to hear out the individual and see if there are problems in process, communication, or other areas that need to be fixed.
Avoidance doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates it, Maxfield says. While the prospect of reporting or confronting a bully isn’t pleasant, the reason so many can continue their behavior is that so few call them on it. Instead of thinking about the fallout of taking action, think about what might happen if you don’t.
"Turn your thinking around. What are the risks and costs if I don’t speak up? Bullies feel they’re being supported when people stay silent," he says.