Bullying in the workplace

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Q: I work in an environment that is becoming very toxic.  I have a new supervisor who stokes this behavior.  He will tell very aggressive, and sometimes violent jokes.  He also taunts and demeans us when we may share a personal story or a miscommunication with a spouse or partner.   Unfortunately, the whole team laughs, but most of us are just happy when we are not the target.  The laughing just seems to encourage him.  Now, months later, this behavior is often the norm.  He doesn’t target one person, but everyone seems to receive his barbs.  I am REALLY afraid of approaching him.  What does one do?

A: Oh no.  Your work environment sounds very difficult.  I can’t imagine such challenging work environment.  It must be difficult.

It sounds like this is a textbook case of bullying.   It is not that different than what happens in our schools.    According to the Workplace Buliy Institute, 30% of adult American are bullied at work.  That is almost 1 in 3 adults! Bullying is different than harassment.  It appears that your supervisor does not target all women, all older employee or all employees of a specific race.  Targeting a specific group is unlawful conduct.

Often bullying tends to be more widespread and not related to one legally protected characteristic.  Bullying falls out of an unlawful behavior category.  Illegal harassment is different. It is based on a protected cater like race, age, gender.  Bullying all employees

However, many employers have a policy which defines a respectful workplace.  It may be called a code of conduct, a respectful workplace policy or a healthy and positive behaviors in the workplace policy.  Most organizations have a policy which prohibits this behavior.  Often times this policy lists different behaviors as example.  My guess is that some of your supervisor’s behaviors are covered by this policy.

An employer can discipline an employee, at any level, who engages in disrespectful conduct.  Some of our clients have terminated an employee who behaves in an unprofessional manner.

It is common for employees “to go along with” such behavior.  As you said, an employee just may want to avoid being the recipient of this behavior.

If you and others have been bullied, it would be smart to document these behaviors as these can be considered as negative actions creating a toxic workplace. If you have been the recipient of aggressive emails, hold onto them.  If others have observed these behaviors, it would be helpful for them to do the same.

Some of the most effective ways of confronting a bullying includes training and then coaching the bully. One other way is for your organization or senior manager to talk about contributions to a positive work environment and incentive those behaviors. We have one client who uses a dashboard to measure performance and one of those measures is respectful behaviors.  We have a another client who implement’s 360 feedback mechanism or pulse check-ins which include culture across the organization, but reported by department members.   In short, it is powerful to create a culture of a positive work environment.

Lastly, a group of employees can report the concern to your Human Resources (HR) department.  Often HR will become more watchful of your department.  There may be higher than average turnover or a pattern of several employees requesting transfers out of the department.  HR should also contact this person’s manager to report the concerns, without naming the reporter if possible.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.