workplace bullying

Workplace bullies don’t appear from thin air

My experience is that most bullies in the workplace do not appear from thin air. There’s often an insidiousness to the company culture that allows their behavior to grow unchecked over time. 

It’s simply not enough to hang a values statement on the company’s wall. You can’t write policies or guidelines in a way that is theoretical and not relevant to real work experiences.   I’m convinced that putting some structure around the seemingly small stuff like how people write and respond to emails, how people do or don’t greet one another, or whether cameras are turned on during remote meetings, all combine to create an atmosphere that provides space for bad behavior to flourish or which suffocates it with intentional kindness, transparency and compassion. 

Question quickly

Consider, for example, when a colleague “drives out of their lane.” How do you determine their intent and what can do you do about it? 

Here’s an example: 

My first client call this past Tuesday morning, the day I normally write my weekly column in Ireland’s largest circulated newspaper, The Sunday Independen, was with a C-level executive who runs the people department for a multi-billion-dollar company.   She was concerned because the colleague emailed comments on the department’s KPI’s (key performance indicators, used to benchmark personnel productivity) to a member of her team, but had failed to include her. 

“Was this an intentional move to go around me?” My client wondered.  She had already learned that the colleague had had a couple of meetings directly with the CEO on some HR issues that arguably should have involved her.  “Am I being iced? Is he trying to squeeze me out?” 

Again, I don’t know enough of the facts to say with certainty what’s happening here. But while it may not rise to the level of bullying or harassment, it doesn’t seem to be part of a transparent or caring style of leadership communications and collaboration.  So, my recommendation: Don’t let the behavior (or your imagination) fester. The behavior needs to be confronted as quickly as possible. 

A confrontation, by the way, does not necessarily need to become heated. Ask open-ended questions. Aim to establish an agreed upon cadence for email, meetings and general communications going forward.  Don’t make this personal.  Strive to make it professional peer to peer. 


Acknowledge emails

A friend had prepared for weeks for an interview for a new job.  It was for a senior position and part of the process required that she devise and present a managerial solution for a role-play scenario provided by the would-be employer.  

The interview panel then quizzed her during a three-hour simulation which she described as “emotional and exhausting.” Despite her jangled nerves, she promptly followed-up with emails, as well as hand-written notes, to each member of her interview panel thanking them for the opportunity and telling them she looked forward to hearing from them regarding the next step in the process. 

She didn’t receive a reply. For eight weeks.  Ultimately, long after she’d given up any hope of hearing from anyone, a surprise email arrived in her in-box. Offering her the job. My friend turned them down. For her, the radio silence had been a damning reflection on the culture of that company.

Companies dealing with scores of applicants can set up automatic replies in advance of the process to keep prospects apprised. 

If you’re an individual and you receive an email, you don’t have to immediately reply with every facet of requested response. But you should at least try to let the other person know you’ve received it and take a moment to give them some sort of expectation of a turn-around timeline. 

Mistakes happen and the occasional email will fall through the cracks. But there’s a difference between a one-off and a system-wide failure to care. 

Acknowledge people

You wouldn’t attend an in-person meeting with a bag over your head, would you? Therefore, if you’re meeting remotely, unless you’re in an extreme circumstance, turn your web-camera on so others can see you are in the virtual room.  It’s the polite thing to do.  

Likewise, if you’re a guest arriving in-person to an organisation, note whether people look up from their desks as you walk by to recognise another human has entered the room.  I’ve been in companies where this is the normal practise and in those where it is not.  Guess which ones I prefer? 

The business cases are clear, dear readers.  When senior leadership teams agree what a people-first, inclusive and caring workplace lives like – (not “looks like”), their commitment to role-modeling such behavior – even down to the smallest detail – will cascade throughout. Conversely, if you are not actively acknowledging and recognizing your employees (and would-be employees) in the ways described above and more, you may not see full-blown bullying rearing its ugly head in the workplace, but you are not cultivating a workplace of respect and dignity either.

Gina London

Gina London

An Emmy-winning former CNN correspondent and anchor with premier clients in five continents, she guides the top companies and executives in the world to more positively connect and engage with their employees, their board and themselves.

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Meet Gina!

An Emmy-winning former CNN correspondent and anchor with premier clients in five continents, she guides the top companies and executives in the world to more positively connect and engage with their employees, their board and themselves.

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