Bullied from the top?

Written by
Dominic Holmes

05 Jul 2016

05 Jul 2016 • by Dominic Holmes

Bullying: what can be done about it?

In today’s highly pressurised working environment, the constant drive for commercial success and the delicate balance of internal politics and strong personalities can lead to allegations of workplace bullying.

These situations can be challenging for HR and the business, especially if the alleged bully is also a senior executive or star performer. The mark is overstepped by someone who is spectacularly successful at winning work or driving business strategy, but has less spectacular people skills. 

At one end of the spectrum, there may be employees who simply lack the self-awareness to understand the impact of their behaviour on others – they do not bully deliberately, but it is an unintended by-product of their drive to succeed at all costs. Conversely, there are the star performers who act with impunity, deliberately targeting more junior or less influential employees. They have the ear of the board and feel that because they deliver on their KPIs, they are “untouchable”. 

Most businesses have put in place measures to tackle bullying. There are typically grievance procedures, bullying or harassment policies and value statements in place to reassure employees that a bullying culture will not be tolerated and encouraging them to speak up. But this is not enough. Without effective implementation, a good set of policies counts for little. 

Often, it is tempting to sweep the problem under the carpet and hope that it goes away, rather than confront a key employee. The business may seek to reassure the victim that the situation is being addressed informally while taking minimal action. It might perhaps follow a formal procedure, knowing that the allegations are unlikely to be upheld. If that doesn’t work, the victim may be offered an exit package and ushered gently towards the door. Either way, the focus is on dealing with the complainant while protecting the alleged bully. 

Good HR practice tells us that this topsy-turvy approach is wrong. But the business speaks and commercial reality bites - we hear things like: “of course we can’t get rid of our CEO, even though he is aggressive and undermines those around him” or “obviously we can’t fire our top seller – that will hit our profits and he’ll just go to one of our competitors”.  Far better to keep the valuable bully on board and turn a blind eye, they might say.

The cost of bullying

But does it actually make commercial sense to indulge a star performer who makes lots of money but lacks the basic skills to treat people with respect? 

It is certainly true that for many employees, success is measured by how much value they can generate, in terms of new revenue streams or profitable business strategy. However, perhaps a sharper focus is required on how much they cost the business as well. 

If not dealt with appropriately, those who have a tendency to bully may end up costing the business far more. It may need to pay off employees who have been on the receiving end, which is often expensive. Tolerating unacceptable behaviour or simply letting things slide also increases the cost of removing a bully, when a tipping point is reached and they are finally seen as a liability. This rarely proves to be money well-spent. 

The impact on morale (and ultimately, employee retention) may also be significant. Employees are unlikely to raise complaints if they believe it is a pointless exercise that may have adverse consequences for their own career. And the result? They just suffer in silence (which may result in stress or persistent absence issues) or they may leave altogether. Good talent may be lost because they have no faith in the business to do the right thing. 

Tips to deal with bullying

1. Spot problems early and encourage the business to instil a culture that confronts bullying and lives up to its stated values. Burying the issue is a short-term, high risk strategy. Laying down a clear marker is a far more effective approach. Look at how the BBC recently dealt with Jeremy Clarkson. He was hugely valuable asset in many ways, but dismissing him sent a powerful message to other employees (and the wider public). 

2. Train managers not only on how to deal with complaints, but also on how to behave appropriately themselves. Cultural awareness training can also be very effective, particularly for those who manage employees across different countries. Prevention is always better than cure. 

3. Identify those who may benefit from one-to-one coaching, to improve management skills and self-awareness. The real star performers are grounded all-rounders who have a happy, committed team working alongside them. Having people skills is an essential part of the superstar package. Ultimately, it reduces cost and adds long-term, tangible value.