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Home No. 83: How do you stop a bully?

Jul 25

No. 83: How do you stop a bully?

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How do you stop a bully?

Reader question: One of my lab employees is bullying the rest of my staff. He questions their intelligence when they make mistakes, puts them down, and even resorts to yelling and name-calling to get his point across. Aside from this behavior, he’s a good worker. He has impeccable standards, always gets his work done on time, and continually exceeds my expectations. I don’t want to lose him, but he is making my other employees miserable. What should I do?

Expert Comments: Generally, bullying behavior won’t stop until you confront it. If you fail to address the issue, you may appear to be afraid of the bully. That will undermine your ability to lead your team, and the bully will seem to be in charge.

In addition, the bully may not know just how damaging his behavior is until you tell him. Some people, because of their background, think berating and name-calling is normal.

Also consider that there are two sides to every story. The bully may think other people are trying to intimidate him, give him a hard time or gang up on him. Alternatively, he might feel that he’s not part of the group and needs to harass others to get attention.

Whatever the case, you must discuss the issue with the accused bully. Hold the meeting in private, and don’t let anyone else know it’s taking place.

Start by explaining the problem. Describe the bully’s behavior, and ask him what he thinks of your assessment.

Regardless of whether his explanation justifies his behavior, the bully must acknowledge that he has mistreated his coworkers. Tell him this behavior is counterproductive, and it must stop.

Offer him assistance if necessary. Many organizations will provide training or appoint a mentor to help a valuable worker learn the people skills he needs.

If the bully pushes back, makes excuses or otherwise doesn’t “get it,” you have to make a decision. You can isolate the bully so he doesn’t work with others, if that’s an option in your organization.

Or you may just have to reiterate that his behavior can’t continue. If it does, you will have to exercise your progressive discipline policy, which may end in the bully’s termination.

Expert comments by Dr. Bernie Sparks, a leadership consultant in Concord, N.H., who specializes in workplace bullying.

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Comments (7)
Is he worth it in the long run
written by Mary Dulgeroff, July 11, 2011
Bullying is unacceptable under any circumstances, even from a PI and you are letting an employee get away with it? So he does good work. Is that worth constant turmoil, staff coming and going as if your lab has a revolving door, work disruption, failed experiments because people are too frightened to work? Even more importantly, is he worth it if one of the staff he is bullying files a Hostile Workplace grievance against you? It is obvious you know about the situation and failure to act now could be fatal to your future research if such a complaint is filed and upheld. Sit him down, talk to him and put him on warning the behavior will not be tolerated by you. Talk to your HR department and find out what actions you can take if he doesn't comply and continues to bully. Then follow through! Your failure to act to control his behavior is tacit acceptance of it and is fueling him to go further. Right now you are ceding control of your lab and your employees to him. This is a dangerous situation for your lab that you, as PI, need to get under control fast before you have no lab left other than you and him.
written by Exasperated, MD, July 11, 2011
I have had to deal with some types like this. Worse thing was the behavior never showed on the job interview. I blame it on the"coddling" of schoolchildren since corporal punishment was cut back. A quick trip to the woodshed when the renegade was six would have fixed the problem permanently. Now, I guess you'll have to go the PC route of "counseling" etc--which at least will get the offender out of your lab for a few hours. For completeness, maybe (1 in 1,000) he's got a brain tumor or Tourette's etc
written by Consistency, July 19, 2011
Bullying = harrassment. Harrassment of the nature described here can lead to more than serious, legal consequences and needs to be stopped immediately. The employee is not in a supervisory role from what I can tell and you are allowing them to create a hostile and intimidating work environment. By allowing this to continue, shows that you support his actions. You can and will be held liable. You need to talk to HR. It's long over due for at least a written council, suggest intrapersonal skills workshops, and possibly EAP. Set followup review dates and make clear that proper communication/people skills are a part of the job duties. Set improvement goals and timeframes to reach those goals. Identify communication standards and how he is expected to maintain those standards. If he is unreceptive or continues the behavior, then, it's time to start the termination process.
written by Phyllis K. Stein PhD, July 26, 2011
This guy has all of the hallmarks of severe narcissism which includes an inflated sense of entitlement and a complete insensitivity to the effect he has on others because of an inability to empathize with others' feelings. I suspect he is actually reflecting how he WAS treated as child, not exactly coddled! Narcissists are notably unwilling or unable to see any problem with their actions because it is always someone else's fault. However, if you are completely clear (and mean it) that this behavior is unacceptable and that you will terminate him if he does not stop, there is a chance that he will change his actions (while blaming you for being a jerk) but you HAVE to mean it otherwise you will get sucked into a game of trying to change someone who is unwilling to change.
written by ED, July 26, 2011
If you have a bully who has a conscience. You may be able to change their behaviour with disciplinary actions. My experience is that most bullies that really are a problem are also narcissists. And you often are not able to change their behaviour you just end up using the progressive discipline system until they get canned.
written by Victor, July 26, 2011
"Progressive discipline", "Termination process"...
Is your bully a minority?
What if the bully is your boss?
written by Linda, August 02, 2011
What do you do if the bully is your boss? What if you have a supervisor who is impervious to facts, never makes site visits, and forms his opinions without data and then lies to justify his biased and partial assessments? How does a victim of a supervisory bully maintain her dignity and sense of self-worth when no one can or will keep the bully in check?

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