Don't Let Workplace Bullies Poison Workplace Morale

by on July 1, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

How to keep Workplace Bullies from Dragging Everybody Down

You did the whole due diligence bit– verified the resume, made a background check, called the references. And yet, six months later, the person turns out to be a bad apple, and is rotting away everybody’s morale and performance. Sound like an all-too-familiar scenario? If so, consider this simple rule: Just don’t hire bad apples. If you already have workplace bullies in the organization, neutralize them. They’re rarely worth it, no matter what exceptional talents they possess. How can you go about this? We’ll make some suggestions in a minute. But first let’s review how workplace bullies poison the well, and how serious this can be. New research from the University of Washington Business School points out that workplace bullies can destroy a team or an entire office.

Example: A study of 50 manufacturing teams found that just one disagreeable or irresponsible member among as many as 15 teammates wrecked communication and cooperation.

The worst part was, putting good people in with the bully didn’t dilute the toxin. Instead, the poison affected the good people. So spoiling power appears, unfortunately, to exceed that of consideration and respect. One of three things tends to happen when workplace bullies are dropped into a previously functional environment, the U of W study concluded. These are:

  • The group tries to get the employee to change. This may work occasionally, but don’t count on it.
  • The group rejects the employee. People may come to you and say, “Please get this person out of here.” But then where do you put him?
  • The group lapses into defensiveness. This scenario is the most common. The team or office falls into withdrawal, anger and/or anxiety. Productivity plummets.

What’s the cure? Workplace bullies aren’t going to disappear. When they come knocking for a job, they don’t wear a sign on their chest. Task one is making sure they don’t get in the door. Here are guidelines to detect and avoid bringing them into your workforce:

  • Check for warning signs. If you don’t already administer personality tests to job applicants, think about starting. Focus on measures of agreeableness, emotional stability and conscientiousness.
  • Doubt the interview. Sure, you have to interview candidates, and we don’t suggest you stop. But interviews are notoriously bad at teasing out real personality traits the candidate is trying to hide. Don’t let the “feel” of an interview influence you too much.
  • Dig behind the references. This may seem like a lot of work. But if you can find people who know the applicant professionally, and promise them confidentiality, you’ll learn more than handpicked references will tell you.
  • Round up the usual suspects. The best way to avoid hiring a spoiler is to rehire someone you know isn’t! Keep tabs on ex-employees who left on good terms. They may want to come back.

OK, but what if you, or your predecessor, forgot your string of garlic and opened the door to Dracula? Short of termination, you can:

  • Isolate the bully. You may have jobs where the person works alone or has few contacts with others.
  • Put the bully with like-minded people. God forbid, you may have a department known for its crotchetiness. Throw the person in there.

A final word: What if, in fending off workplace bullies who happen to be in a protected class, you appear to be discriminating? This is where the job description comes in. Among the qualifications, include cooperativeness, ability to work in a team and a constructive, respectful attitude.

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