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Leadership Forum: Ensuring a bully-free workplace

Researching this subject, I was surprised to learn bullying in the workplace is the most prevalent form of destructive behaviour covered by legislation, outranking sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Reports on workplace violence emphasize that physical and emotional violence is one of the most serious problems facing organizations.

December 17, 2007 
By E.David Hodgins

edavidhodgins_3908Researching this subject, I was surprised to learn bullying in the workplace is the most prevalent form of destructive behaviour covered by legislation, outranking sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Reports on workplace violence emphasize that physical and emotional violence is one of the most serious problems facing organizations. Despite this data, workplace bullying is often not taken seriously.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) definition of workplace violence defines bullying as “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. These behaviours would originate from customers, co-workers at any level of the organization. This definition would include all forms or harassment, bullying, intimidation, physical threats/assaults, robbery and other intrusive behaviours.”

Everyone, regardless of rank, especially an organization’s leaders, is responsible for ensuring a bullying-free workplace. It is a leader’s responsibility to respectfully listen to employees who perceive they are being bullied. If employees feel the leader is indifferent, they will not bring their concerns forward. To eradicate bullying, it is essential employees are supported when they express concerns. To support employees, leaders must:

  1. ensure employees feel secure when bringing concerns forward;
  2. seriously consider an employee’s concern;
  3. never make excuses for inappropriate behaviour;
  4. advance concerns to a position in the organization where they will be dealt with;
  5. treat everyone equally under the organization’s code of conduct;
  6. hold others to the code of conduct; and
  7. ensure individuals clearly understand that retaliation will result in immediate and serious consequences.

Adult bullies, like their schoolyard counterparts, tend to be insecure people with poor or non-existent social skills and little empathy. They turn their insecurity outward, finding pleasure in their ability to attack and weaken capable people. Bullies behave offensively because that is often their only behaviour pattern. Because they lack confidence, they are looking to secure power at some else’s expense.


Bullying behaviour comes in several personality types. A common trait is dramatic personality swings: one minute pleasant, the next minute, they are yelling and screaming. Bullies tend to be constantly criticizing everyone and everything in order to deflect their own incompetence. They tell lies and are deceitful as they seek opportunities to climb the corporate ladder. They are especially dangerous because they can never be trusted; they will always make it look like they are not at fault. Some bullies control access to resources and are able to restrict an individual’s ability to perform as directed and expected. They will obstruct an employee’s progress and promotion. Regardless of specific tactics, the intimidation is driven by the bully’s need to control others. All of these deplorable behaviours lead to a toxic work environment.

Sometimes victims are able to manage the destructive behaviour. Some actions to consider include: never back down from the bully; do not become a victim; do not confront a bully by listing what he or she is doing wrong; tell the bully what you need and expect; seek a quiet time to ask the bully what you did to make them so angry; refuse to play the bully’s game, always take the high road; and advise the bully that you will be following the chain of command to deal with the disturbing behaviour.

Performance suffers when employees feel intimidated. Research shows they spend time defending themselves and networking for support, brooding about the situation, become unmotivated and stressed, and take sick leave due to stress-related illnesses. When performance is negatively impacted, health and safety becomes a significant issue. This is especially evident when the job involves emergency response. The business case for strict anti-bullying policies is compelling.

Leaders must confirm that bullying is unacceptable behaviour. Leaders are responsible for establishing proper systems for investigating, recording and dealing with conflict. This includes investigating complaints quickly, while maintaining discretion and confidentiality, protecting the rights of all individuals involved. It is important that the problem be taken seriously at all levels. The potential benefits of positive leadership are enormous: a peaceful and productive workplace, better decision making, less production time lost to sick leave or self-defensive paperwork, higher staff retention, and a lower risk of legal action.

How hostile are you? A recent Mayo Clinic Women’s Health Source newsletter includes this hostility self-test. If you agree with four or more statements, you need to find better ways of coping with your anger.

  1. I feel like screaming at or punching someone at least once a week.
  2. I get annoyed with others when I have to wait in line.
  3. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I honk, yell out my window or make obscene gestures.
  4. I like to let people know when I’m annoyed with them.
  5. When someone wrongs me, I think of ways to get even.
  6. I re-live slights over and over.
  7. I often assume others are out to get me.
  8. When someone criticizes me, I lash out.
  9. When someone is performing a task too slowly, I take over.
  10. When I have a problem with a product or service, I contact the company’s customer service representative and yell at them.

Leaders must take action to make bullying as unthinkable as sexual harassment or substance abuse in the workplace. Do not fall victim to the false power of the corporate bully. You will render them powerless when you calmly and respectfully confront their behaviour. Everyone is entitled to a bully-free work environment.

And remember, it’s all about “respect and passion.”

E. David Hodgins is the Fire Commissioner for the province of British Columbia. A 27-year veteran of the fire service, Hodgins is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager and fire services instructor. He has held senior fire officer positions in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario, most recently as Fire Chief of London, Ont.

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