Profile of a workplace bully

Workplace safety legislation requires every company to have policies and programs to protect workers against workplace aggression. In some cases, however, despite having such policies, management still fails to act for lack of sufficient knowledge — until it’s too late.
This is what happened to Pierre LeBrun, the OC Transpo worker who was a victim of persistent bullying by his co-workers. Unable to take it any longer, he took a gun to work, shot six co-workers, killed four of them, and then turned the gun on himself.

Managers sometimes fail to act on reported bullying situations because they are uncertain of what to do about it, said Gary McDougall, facilitator at Conflict Solutions, an Alberta-based training and consulting firm specializing in conflict management.

“The hiccup around bullying is that there is limited legislation around bullying,” McDougall told attendees of the Western Conference on Safety, where he gave a presentation on workplace bullying.

Some managers would choose to turn a blind eye on the issue, hoping it would go away. But in most cases, the issue doesn’t go away; in fact, it can take a turn for the worse.

“It’s an awkward conversation,” said McDougall, who is also a retired police officer and trained hostage negotiator.

According to the Canada Safety Council (CSC), of people who reported bullying in the workplace, 13 per cent of the targets were transferred, 40 per cent ended up leaving voluntarily and 24 per cent were terminated. In only 23 per cent of those cases was the bully punished.

The CSC also reported one in six employees has been bullied, and one in five has witnessed a co-worker being bullied. More than 70 per cent of workplace bullies are in a position of authority in the organization.

Recognizing a bully in the workplace is the first thing companies have to learn in order to effectively handle the problem.

Bullying is not just about physical assault, McDougall said. Bullying typically involves a sustained pattern of behaviour directed towards a target person, a fact that sets it apart from workplace discrimination or harassment.

“Harassment or discrimination can be completed by a single action or comment, whereas, bullying is a much longer process,” he explained.

Knowing when there is a bullying situation afoot will enable the company to take the bully by the horns and put a stop to it — before things get worse. It’s not only good for legislative compliance, but it serves the company’s bottom line as well.

“Workplace bullying is the greatest enemy of productivity,” said McDougall. A certain consequence of workplace bullying is that the victim’s productivity will likely drop, and in some cases, the entire office’s productivity drops as well, he added.

Based on McDougall’s conference presentation, here are some telltale signs you may have a bully in your workplace.

?    Absence of empathy.  Where a reasonable person would show understanding or regret when asked about a perceived bullying incident, a bully would typically become offensive. Often, they would shift the blame to the target or the victim.

?    Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The bully is often vicious and vindictive when there’s no one but the victim around, yet displays innocence and charm when witnesses are present. It would be difficult for people to accept that this person is a bully underneath the sweet surface.

?    Master of lies. Bullies are very convincing and usually a master in the art of manipulation. When confronted, they would spontaneously make up an excuse or reasoning to serve their needs. It’s therefore no surprise that bullies often are able to secure coveted positions in the organization.

?    Social chameleons. They are highly skilled in social manipulation and can adapt to the current environment extremely well, said McDougall. This is also why it’s usually easy for them to get the job they aspire for.

?    Unpopular manager. Statistics say 72 per cent of workplace bullies are those in a position of power. Be mindful of supervisors or managers whose staff members seem unmotivated or spending more time off work. If you have workers from the same department who keep asking to be transferred out of that department, it could be an indication that their leader may be a bully.

McDougall said while companies need to address the issue of workplace bullying, they also need to exercise caution that not all reported bullying incidents are as they seem.

“We need to be mindful of the concept of ‘overuse’ of the term bullying,” he said. “Unjustified use of the term will reduce our ability to deal with actual bullying situations.”

Managers have to have the authority to lead, offer constructive criticism and enforce reasonable disciplinary actions, said McDougall.