What Can Be Done About A Workplace Bully?

by Gray Reed & McGraw
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With bullying in the news of late, I was recently asked how employers should deal with a star employee that bullies or berates co-workers.

Each August my wife begins a new school year with 22 bright shiny faces that all come from different home environments.  Some are very polite.  Some are sneaky.  Some are bullies.  Some are bully targets.  All of them are about to begin a new relationship with their teacher that will set the tone for the next 9 months.

In these crucial first days, the students will learn what they can and cannot get away with.  They will learn whether “Mrs. K” demands respect or is a push-over, etc.  Knowing this from years of experience, Mrs. K immediately provides the ground rules and delivers swift punishment for students who test the limits.  Separate and apart from what is on the white board, Mrs. K teaches the students how to treat her.

Over the years, I have developed the view that employees are not altogether different from my wife’s fourth graders.  Employers must teach the employees how to treat them and the other employees of the business.  The rules must be laid out in a way the employees can understand at the beginning and punishment must be carried out for employees who break the rules.  If the employer has no follow through on punishment, there will be pandemonium.  The employees, just like the students, will learn that the supposed consequences never happen and the rules mean little or nothing.

This does not mean the workplace can’t be a fun environment.  Most of Mrs. K’s students think she is the most fun teacher they’ve ever had.  She makes games of their desk work and grants prizes and breaks when the students perform well as a group.  In this same way the office does not have to be “all stick and no carrot.”  As long as employees follow the rules, employers should provide benefits.

A bully can ruin an office environment.  And, even if that bully is a star performer, the entire productivity of the office may be dragged down by his or her actions.  The profits the bully may generate are often muted by the decrease in productivity from other employees who perceive their employer will not stand up for them.  These other decent employees often look for another job and bolt when the opportunity arises.

Like it or not, the only way the problem gets better is if there are rules and those rules are enforced.  If the employer does not have the stomach to discipline the bully because they are afraid of losing him or her, there will be no way to curb the present conduct.  In that case, creating rules that are not carried out may actually be more harmful.

Once the rules are created, the employer should provide advance warning.  The employees – including the bully – are all operating on the assumption that the status quo will continue.  They need and deserve an opportunity to understand how things are changing.  From there, the employer must enforce the rules.  I know it is easier said than done, but nothing is going to change unless you teach the bully how to treat his or her co-workers.

So what kind of punishment should employers mete out?  Punishment that will actually cause a change in behavior.  With a bully in the office, employers need to act quickly to re-establish control.  Working through a few weeks of write ups to get to a point where punishment is finally given will likely be unacceptable.  In most cases, this means affecting compensation.  It is after all the biggest control the employer has and the biggest reason the employees come to work.

If the bully is an hourly employee or a salaried non-exempt from overtime, consider sending him or her home without pay on a day of your choosing (not a day that would seem like a vacation to the employee).  Let them know the punishment will be coming and then randomly send them home after they get to the office on a Tuesday or some other day where they will not be able to convert it into a vacation day.

If the bully is salaried and exempt from overtime, consider reducing the bully’s salary for a week by an amount that will hurt.  Provide advance warning that the reduction is coming.  It is not legal to do it after the fact.

If you provide bonuses, cut back on the bonus.  If you offer vacation days, start taking them away (but remember to establish this rule in writing before beginning to use it).

All the while, document the bully’s conduct.  This way, if nothing else works, you can take that final step to terminate the bully without risking some type of legal claim.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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