Is It Bullying Or Tough Management?

If You Don’t Know The Difference, It May Be Costing Your Company Money.

By Steve Schumacher

Bullying has been getting a great deal of attention the past couple years. The majority of it has centered on school-age children and social media. We all remember the schoolyard bully who pushed other kids around and threatened other kids in order to get their way. The workplace is not much different.

There are people who use overt and covert methods to get their way on the job. The question becomes: What is the difference between bullying in the workplace and just tough management?

All employees needed to be pushed harder, from time to time, in order to do their best and achieve things they might not achieve. That is the responsibility of a good manager.

Good managers know when to use their influence over an employee to get them to attain more. When that influence becomes the rule versus the exception, then it can become a problem.

Workplace bullying is commonly defined as “individuals or groups who use aggressive or unreasonable tactics against co-workers or subordinates persistently.” Having an issue with another employee, being reprimanded, or personality differences are not bullying.

Simply because an employee is stressed, overworked or out of sorts does not mean bullying is taking place. There is a big difference between a boss who pushes people for greater performance, and a person who manipulates, threatens and intimidates others quite often, in order to gain some self-serving purpose.

According to a University of North Carolina study:

  • 53 percent of respondents reported lowered productivity as a result of bullying and other negative behavior.
  • 28 percent lost work time avoiding the instigator.
  • Nearly 25 percent reduced their effort at work.
  • 12 percent actually quit.


There is not a lot that can be done to change a bully, but there are some things you can do to lessen the impact of one.
Establish a zero tolerance policy. Work closely with HR to identify what constitutes bullying, the consequences for it happening, and a process for people to follow if they feel they are being bullied. Make it clear to everyone that bullies are not welcome in your company.

Establish anonymous reporting mechanisms. When employees feel like they have no way to report bullying, without repercussions, they will not report it. The result is increased stress, absenteeism, turnover and other outcomes that are easily tied to bullying. Select an objective ombudsman or another person that employees trust with confidentiality.

Investigate thoroughly. In order for your anti-bullying policies to have teeth, you must have a comprehensive investigation procedure. HR is the most likely department to do this, but try to get operations people involved also. Get them some training on how to handle investigations in an unbiased and thorough manner, with reporting going to the highest level possible.

Confront. Once the investigation is complete, confront the bully with the evidence. Research has shown that the longer bullying goes on, the more other employees go along and enable that behavior. By confronting the bully, you break that cycle. In addition to having all of your evidence in place, be prepared to let the bully know what the consequences are for this behavior continuing.

Give the bully a chance. We are all human and take turns in our life that we should not. Such may be the case with the bully. In my career, I have confronted several bullies and shared specifically the impact of what they were doing. Believe it or not, they were surprised that they came across that way. Most people chose to talk behind their back or avoid them, and not confronting them. Put a specific improvement action plan together, with dates, for the bully to work on. Follow-up incessantly, but give them a chance.

Go public. Once the process of identifying the bully and setting up an action plan with them is in place, let others know the outcome. Let everyone know the situation and that improvement is planned and expected. This is also a good time to ask others for support and to remind them that enabling bullies is not acceptable. By providing these kinds of consequences for bullying and enabling behavior, you will see both decrease.

Bullying takes many forms in the work place. Confronting it is not easy, but must be done in order to ensure that everyone has a safe and fulfilling work environment.

The costs to the company – in terms of lost creativity, turnover, stress claims, etc. – are enormous. As a steward of the company, it is your job to minimize it.

How Bullying Can Affect the Brain and Body

Stressors, aspects of the work environment and the behavior of people working there, can generate stress. Bullies are stressors, but so are coworkers who do nothing when you expect them to help. In addition, do-nothing institutional helpers – HR and senior management – exacerbate problems.

Stress is the biological human response to stressors. It is physiological and real, not just imagined. Low-level stress may be necessary to compel people to act. However, severe stress, which prevents rational, controlled action, has overwhelmingly negative consequences.

Distress, is the harmful variety of stress. It triggers the human stress response that is an automatically coordinated release of glucocorticoids (cortisol being the most prominent hormone) that floods the brain and body. Prolonged exposure of brain tissue glucocorticoids leads to atrophy of areas responsible for memory, emotional regulation and an ability to sustain positive social relationships.

Stress-related diseases and health complications from prolonged exposure to the stressors of bullying:

  • Cardiovascular Problems: Hypertension (60 percent), Strokes and Heart Attacks.
  • Adverse Neurological Changes: Neurotransmitter Disruption, Hippocampus and Amygdala atrophy.
  • Gastrointestinal: IBD, colitis.
  • Immunological Impairment: More frequent infections of greater severity.
  • Auto-immune disorders.
  • Fibromyalgia (21 percent), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (33 percent).
  • Diabetes (10 percent).
  • Skin Disorders (17 percent).


Some physical indications of the above stress might include:

  • Nausea.
  • Tremors of the Lips, Hands, Etc.
  • Feeling Uncoordinated.
  • Chills.
  • Profuse Sweating.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Rapid Heartbeat.
  • Rapid Breathing.
  • Elevated Blood Pressure.
  • Chest Pain.
  • Uncontrollable Crying.
  • Headaches.

Each of the symptoms can start small and may seem unrelated, but the presence of such indicators should be heeded as a warning.

Source: Workplace Bullying Institute.



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