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Why Workplace Bullies Get Away With It

06/17/2015 12:36 EDT | Updated 06/17/2016 05:59 EDT
Shutterstock / Lisa S.

Looking to stop a bully in his tracks?

You've come to the right place.

I help a lot of people do this... and I've learned a thing or two in the process.

Defeating a workplace bully requires a combination of wit, tactical thinking and a measure of good luck. The good news: I can help you get a "leg up" on how to interrupt and unmask a bully at large without putting your good name at risk.

In the meantime, I want to focus on where most targets of bullying get stuck.

For those of you who are just starting to feel the "ripple effect" that bullying is having on your ability to contribute your greatest gifts at work, this critical understanding is essential.

Yet it's a message that we tend to resist. Why? Because this reality challenges our basic expectations about what we were taught a workplace should be like.

Unless you accept it, however, a suffocating "mental fog" may keep you stuck in a vulnerable position where you can be attacked- or at the very least undermined- by supervisors you once thought had your best interests in mind.

So here it is.

This is the reality that I had to come to terms with before I was able to take action to inoculate myself against the poisonous influence of a workplace bully:

Bullies at work make life a living hell simply because they can get away with it.

Time and time again. With very few repercussions. Especially if they are "rainmakers" who drive profit into the business.

It doesn't seem to matter if their behaviour erodes morale, it doesn't matter if they are breaking every single management model you read about in business school, it doesn't matter how many employees felt compelled to quit or go on stress leave.

It isn't about how hard you work, how educated you are or how talented you are.

None of these things make a difference when the people who have the power to put a workplace tyrant in their place keep turning a blind eye.

In the end, more often than not, bullies in the workplace get away with their bad habits for years.

In the meantime, their micro-managing, hyper-critical, aggressive and dictatorial ways slowly chip away at your motivation and erode the love you once had for your profession.

It's absolutely maddening that there seems to be much more protection for bullies than victims.

Let's take a closer look at why this might be the case.

Lack of evidence: Today's world is all about documentation.

If you approach your human resources department about Angie in accounting, you can't just make statements about her incompetence without documented evidence of wrongdoing. Before HR can move forward, they need something to work with.

Most HR departments may want to help you, but they need dates, times, and specific occurrences of intimidating and unfair behaviour. Don't expect any special assistance, either. They can't be seen as working with you to bring an employee to task if you haven't done your homework first.

If not, it's just your word against Joe's. Your case will be better if you have others who witnessed the bullying. Yet in most cases, witnesses are very reluctant to speak up.

It's easier: To piggyback off the documentation notion, it's a lot of paperwork to write up and eventually terminate an employee. Sometimes bullies get away with their behaviour because no one wants to jump through the procedural hoops.

It's lazy. It's managerial incompetence at its worse. Yet it's incredibly commonplace in HR departments.

They have to take your statement, interview the accused bully, & interview witnesses- the vast majority of whom are unlikely likely to speak up. Next, they have to complete the write up, then jump over even more complex hurdles to terminate or suspend the bully.

It's a lot of work, and some aren't willing to do it.

Keep in mind there is a political risk at play here too. It can be career-threatening for HR employees to initiate action against a "higher up," no matter how compelling the evidence may be.

In fact, you might be surprised how much bullying happens within HR departments.

No one speaks up: Everyone knows Mike in Marketing is horrible to everyone else in the office. How is he still around?

Have you spoken to HR or management about it? Chances are you haven't, and no one else has either. It's hard for HR to take care of a bully they don't know about. But what if they are aware of it and refuse to take action?

Always, always check company policies before you consider this, but bullies who are prone to spout off sexist, racist and demeaning tirades are often forced to "face the press" when evidence of their tantrum is exposed for public viewing.

If you don't believe me, just ask Jeremy Clarkson & Britt McHenry where their careers went after they were "caught in the act" of bullying and it went viral.

Exposure may be the only way to compel management to hold workplace bullies accountable for their behaviour, yet be sure to tread carefully here as you don't want to be accused of being a bully yourself.

They know a guy: Sometimes it really is about who you know and not what you know.

Bullies may have friends or family in high places. If they've got someone backing them, it's going to be very hard for HR to convince brass to get rid of them or punish them, even if they want to.

Workplace bullying is certainly not fair. Do your part to keep track of occurrences, speak up, and take strategic measures when necessary. If you want to get out from under the thumb of a workplace bully you can get even more tip, tricks, and tactics here.

If a workplace bully isn't being dealt with, you may need to speak to people with more power, take power into your own hands, or, unfortunately, find a new job.

What do you think? Let's get the discussion going. Share your comments below.

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