Identifying the Many Faces of a Workplace Bully

Learning and HR professionals can help create an organization that stops even the most subtle forms of bullying from happening.

“Bully” brings to mind a tough kid on the playground who steals your lunch. In the workplace, bullying is more subtle. Sometimes it’s so subtle that it can be disguised as other things. The employee or manager who “just has high standards,” for instance, could be a bully in disguise when their insistence on these “high standards” results in frequent employee burnout and resignation from the organization.

Forbes recently featured a podcast by Heidi Lynne Kurter that looked at how employers unknowingly bully employees. According to Kurter, bullying could be as subtle as misgendering an employee, and can include humiliation of an employee, blocking a promotion or advancement, discrimination, harassment, setting unrealistic goals, intimidation, and spreading harmful rumors.

The manager who devalues an employee, deciding to limit their potential and effectively cast them in the role of low-potential employee, may think they are only making advancement decisions based on performance. That may be true, if, in fact, the employee has a poor record, but when the employee’s record is outstanding, further investigation by Learning professionals and Human Resources is warranted. Does your organization have a system in place to evaluate, and double-check for fairness, when a long-time employee is passed over for a promotion?

A healthy corporate culture looks first to high-performers already in its ranks when a job role becomes available. When employees are passed over for promotions in favor of people from outside of the organization, a review should be triggered. It may be that the manager had good reason for deciding against promoting the employee. Or it could be a case of subtle bullying in which a manager has decided to exert power over the employee to keep them in their current job role because that’s where, rightly or wrongly, they have decided the employee belongs. Sometimes a departmental head can be this kind of bully, intervening to stop a promotion or job role transfer because the employee serves the department’s purposes in their current role, and allowing them the deserved promotion or job transfer will create difficulty because of the need to fill the employee’s out-going role. When a manager, or higher-level executive, decides to use their power to keep an employee in a development box, that’s bullying.

A manager who professes to be a perfectionist with uncompromising standards also can be a bully in disguise. That’s especially true when the manager’s communications spill into employees’ personal time, texting or calling at night or on the weekends. Sometimes bullying can happen in punctuation, believe it or not. Take, for example, the manager, who, even for minor matters, sends messages in all-caps, and frequently uses multiple exclamation points and question marks. I always wonder to myself, “Is that to connote anger, outrage, or incredulity?” The messages a manager sends, when they are often frantic for no good reason, are a form of bullying because it raises employee anxiety levels, and can leave an employee feeling like they’re being yelled at.

A manager with a bad temper, who may otherwise be a good person, can be a bully when that temper is directed toward a specific employee, and is vented in public. That could result in humiliation. You would hope that taking an employee aside for criticism would be common sense, but it’s something you may have to teach, and periodically remind, managers of.

The manager who communicates with employees differently depending on their gender is yet another form of subtle bullying. How about the manager or executive who “mansplains” to female employees, rather than having conversations? I worked with a man who felt the need to explain everything—a doorknob, the weather, cats, anything—that I happened to mention, rather than engaging in a conversation with me about the topic I brought up. Whatever the topic, he would first explain to me how that topic worked. I noticed he didn’t do that with a male colleague. Do Learning and Human Resources professionals need to be on the alert for mansplaining? And if they notice it happening, how do they train the offender out of it? Mansplaining is a form of bullying because it’s an unconscious way of keeping the female employee in her place by talking down to her, with the man casting himself as the more knowledgeable party.

Making generalizations about a group of people, of which the employee is a member, is discriminatory and a form of bullying, and yet subtle enough that it might not be recognized as bullying. One of my former managers would openly critique how the women we videotaped interviews with looked, noting sometimes that they looked so bad it would be a disservice to them to use the videos or photos we had taken. When I pointed out to him that I never heard him so carefully scrutinize the videos and photos of men we had interviewed, he said women usually care more about how they look than men do. In other words, he felt he was only doing what these women would want by carefully inspecting their appearance and stopping the videos from being used if they didn’t look good according to his judgment. Is that a form of bullying? It certainly limits the fairness of treatment and opportunities for advancement of a particular group of people.

Bullying takes many forms, and often intersects with other issues, like sexism, so identifying when it’s happening can be hard. Learning and Human Resources professionals who get to know work groups, and become keen observers, are invaluable. Sometimes you need to be knowledgeable, yet apart from the group, to recognize bullying behavior.

How do you create an organization that stops even the most subtle forms of bullying from happening?