8 steps to help you tackle a workplace bully


Bullying in the workplace is rife and something that employees in South Africa deal with regularly, according to Helene Vermaak, business director of corporate cultural specialist company The Human Edge.

The SA Board for People Practice has identified bullying in the workplace as a significant issue in South Africa.  

Research by The Human Edge's US partner VitalSmarts revealed that emotional bullying is very common. More than 50% of those surveyed said they work with someone who is overly controlling or autocratic, while 45% of respondents said they work with someone who excludes or gives colleagues the silent treatment.

About 46% said they work with an individual who is sarcastic, cutting, demeaning or offensive and 41% said they work with a colleague who gossips, or spreads rumours or other misinformation.

"We all tend to avoid confrontation and even more so in the workplace. Rather than addressing a bully's behaviour we use avoidance tactics, such as venting to others, trying to avoid the bully or even leaving the organisation," says Vermaak.

"Bullying can be tackled and even solved in companies that create a psychologically safe environment, in which employees are encouraged and enabled to hold one another accountable [for their behaviour]."

Vermaak suggests eight steps can help tackle a workplace bully.
Document the facts

Keep a record of all incidents, the times, places, circumstances, witnesses, actions and impact and try to avoid generalisations.

Ensure your safety

Speaking up always involves some risk, but don't ever put yourself in physical danger. However, at the same time, don't let your fears prevent you from acting.

Perform a realistic assessment of the worst-case scenarios if you do speak up and if you don't speak up. You may then decide to speak directly to the bully, talk to a manager or HR professional, or talk to the bully with a third-party present.

Decide what you really want

Ask yourself what long-term success you would like. If the bully stopped their behaviour, would that be enough? Or do you need to see some formal sanction against the bully?

Have the right conversation

The term "bullying" implies a pattern of abuse, not a single incident. Make sure you talk about the pattern, instead of arguing about individual incidents.

The bully may not see the pattern, but only the incidents and they are likely to try and justify their behaviour. Make sure you have the facts related to enough incidents to make the pattern clear.

Start with facts

Begin by describing two or three incidents you've documented. Highlight incidents that show the pattern and use verbatim quotes whenever possible. Stick closely to the facts as they add more credibility than your opinions.

Tell your story

Explain how the incidents fit together. Your stories are the judgments, conclusions and explanations you have about the facts. This is the point in the conversation where you make the pattern clear.

"This is also where reasonable people may disagree. You need to have enough facts to justify your story," says Vermaak.

"At the same time, be open to the idea that others may see a different story in the same set of facts."
Explain the consequences

Describe the impact the bullying behaviour is having on your and others' performance. Try to be as specific as possible. Emphasise business, rather than personal impacts. You just want a positive, productive workplace.

Get a commitment

Get a specific commitment from the bully. This commitment should include what they will stop or start doing and how you will follow up.

Understand that patterns of bad behaviour are difficult to change. The bully will struggle and will slip up. These slip ups will test whether the commitment is real. Talk about the likelihood of slip-ups in advance and discuss how to deal with them.

* Compiled by Carin Smith

Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo
Company Snapshot
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I'm not really directly affected
18% - 1761 votes
I am taking a hit, but should be able to recover in the next year
23% - 2316 votes
My finances have been devastated
35% - 3466 votes
It's still too early to know what the full effect will be
25% - 2488 votes