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The Federal Coach
Posted at 05:44 PM ET, 03/05/2012

Bullying at work

What advice can you give us on how to stop workplace bullying? Our manager crosses the line frequently and a group of us wind up feeling bullied.  - Federal employee

Unfortunately, some bullies don’t grow up, they just grow older.

What does workplace bullying look like? Unlike when we were young, there are no showdowns on the playground or shakedowns for lunch money. Bullying in the workplace can come in the form of veiled threats or derogatory statements meant to intimidate or coerce an employee.

My kids’ teachers tell them to “tell a trusted adult” when they encounter a bully. That may be something you will need to do in the workplace setting as well. However, because it is the workplace and the bullying behavior is presumably coming from someone who is at least chronologically an adult, I suggest you allow for the possibility that your manager is not fully aware of the impact of his or her behavior.

How should you handle the situation? Here are a few ideas.

Have a private conversation with the manager. It won’t be easy, but you need to talk to the offending manager. If there are others who also feel bullied, perhaps you can schedule some time as a group for a closed-door conversation.

Do not start with an accusation. Don’t automatically assume that the manager is intentionally trying to belittle you and other employees, or otherwise purposely trying to intimidate people or make them uncomfortable. That implies you know the manager’s motivation, which you cannot know with certainty.

Focus on a factual description of the behavior and how it affected you.  Your manager may not understand the impact of his behavior. So in as hypothetical example, you might say, “I asked for this meeting because you may not be aware of how something that you did is really bothering me. The other day at our staff meeting, you raised your voice and told me that I was being inconsiderate by asking for leave next week when the workload is piling up. All I could think about was how embarrassing it was to be yelled at in front of my co-workers and that you didn’t give me a chance to explain that I have a family emergency.”

Be clear how a change in behavior could make a positive difference. Explain that in the future when your manager is angered that you would appreciate having a private discussion so you can offer your point of view. Point out that it’s easier to concentrate on getting the job done if there is open, civil communication rather than a negative, attack approach.

You may be pleasantly surprised by your manager’s reaction. Of course, it’s also possible that manager will not be receptive to your feedback and will refuse to acknowledge that there is any need for a change in behavior. In that case, it may be time to find a trusted peer, mentor or a leader within your agency who can provide advice and counsel.

Perhaps that is someone in your human resources or equal employment opportunity office who could offer some specific advice. Based on the feedback you receive, it may be time to call this to the attention of someone at a higher level in the chain of command. Schedule a conversation with the manager’s supervisor or someone that you think will be in a position to take action to defuse the situation.

Depending on the nature of the bullying behavior, you may want to consider filing a formal complaint. For example, if the bullying is only directed at people of a particular gender, race, or ethnicity, and it appears to affect how promotions or other job rewards are handled, there could be cause for an equal employment opportunity complaint. Of course, if the manager is an equal opportunity bully, that may not work.

Finally, if you find your boss is beyond repair and higher level management is disinclined to take action, you many need to consider looking for a new job. Even with federal jobs in short supply due to budget constraints, there are still opportunities at many federal agencies. But don’t just take the first opportunity that comes your way. Find something that aligns with your longer-term career goals. Otherwise, you may be miserable again, but for different reasons.

For more information, take a look at these Harvard Business Review blog posts – one about diagnosing and eliminating workplace bullying and another about stopping “mean girls” in the workplace. There’s also a Workplace Bullying Institute that offers online resources, books, coaches and other materials to help those who feel they’re being bullied at work.

Please do something. You owe it to yourself to work in an environment where you can succeed.

If you’ve been bullied – and lived to tell the tale – please share your thoughts by leaving a comment or emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org

Wish you had more On Leadership advice columns during the week? Good news: We’re launching a second column, with leadership advice by Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein. Help us get it off the ground by sharing your leadership dilemma:

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More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

By  |  05:44 PM ET, 03/05/2012

Tags:  leadership, advice

 
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