How A Workplace Bully Can Harm Your Staff!

By Mark Swartz
Canadian Career Specialist

Thought you had left the schoolyard behind now that you’re a grown up? Not so if you have a bully running amok in your employee ranks.

Just like back in the schoolyard, a workplace bully can terrorize the people around them. They’re able to make even the best and brightest cower in fear. As an employer you have a duty to protect your staff from the harmful effects of this belligerent behaviour. Otherwise you may find yourself defending an action filed by the aggrieved staff.

How A Workplace Bully Picks On Your Staff

Intimidation is the name of the game for workplace bullies. They tend to target people they believe are vulnerable, who won’t fight back. More than 70% of bullying cases involve a more senior staff member exerting his or her power over a junior employee. 

The bully thrives on humiliating others. They may unjustly criticize an employee in the presence of that person’s peers. Or yell at them in ways that strip them of dignity. 

Overloading the targeted employee, isolating them, increasing their responsibility while removing their authority, these are all favourite tactics of the bully.

The Effects A Bully Can Have At Work

Workplace bullying is a form of psychological violence. The targeted employee begins to feel belittled and helpless, especially if you as an employer do not have effective policies in place to deal with these situations.

Targeted employees experience increased frustration and anxiety. They may start suppressing rage. Or they may lose confidence and begin avoiding the workplace as much as they can. 

The stress of being bullied can lead to illness: headaches, nausea, and sleep deprivation are some possible symptoms. An inability to concentrate or complete work properly may develop. In advanced cases of bullying, an employee may need to be placed on short-term or long-term disability leave. (18% of short term disability in Canada is due to bullying; the average time off is 159 days for these bullied targets).

It is not only the targeted employee who is affected. The workplace as whole can suffer. Increased absenteeism, reduced morale and productivity, increased risk of accidents, higher costs for usage of Employee Assistance Programs, and greater employee turnover can result if you don’t intervene.

Why Employers May Be Slow To Deal With Workplace Bullies

Many bullies have risen up the ranks of organizations by acting like bulls in a china shop. They drive their workers hard and may be very accomplished due to their aggressiveness.

Since we are prone to rewarding people who get things done, it’s no wonder stopping a bully in their tracks – with the risk it brings of losing a highly productive employee – makes us think twice about interfering.

And if you’re the person who hired the bully, intervention can be doubly troubling. Not only might you clip the wings of your most industrious employee (the bully), but you are effectively admitting that you made a judgment error during the hiring process.

Adding to this guilt and shame is the embarrassment of not having acted sooner. Generally a bully has done quite a bit of damage to your staff before things get dealt with. It’s tough to admit that you have let the situation get so out of hand and have allowed good people to suffer unnecessarily. Finally there are employers who’d rather pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Maybe it’ll go away on its own?

The Wrong Way To Go About Fixing The Problem

Once an employer decides that enough is enough, the first reaction is often to try and “fix” the bully. Send the offending person to anger management courses. Set them up with a coach. Subject them to sensitivity training.

None of which works very well because changing a person’s personality or behaviour patterns is no easy task. Even if you do manage to get the bully to tone down their tyranny temporarily, by then there are likely protégés who have learned firsthand how to be manipulative through domination. 

The Right Way To Stop Workplace Bullying

According to workplace bullying expert Dr. Gary Namie, of the Workplace Bullying Institute, the best way to intervene is to change the rules. It is your workplace culture and regulations that enable bullying in an organization. Thus it’s necessary to “create, and enforce, a code of conduct that says the behaviour that got the bully this far is no longer allowed.”

You could start by setting up anti-bullying policies. These might state explicitly the behaviours that will not be tolerated, or you might take a more general approach by outlining the nature of bullying and stating that it will not be tolerated.

Set up a confidential reporting mechanism so that affected employees can bring their concerns forward without risk of retaliation. 

Remove the affected employee from the influence of the bully. For instance you could transfer the targeted employee to another department for a short time, or give them paid leave, if needed, while you address the problem. Otherwise the vulnerable employee may crumble under the stress.

As for the bully, you might reassign them to a role that no longer has people reporting to them. Dr. Namie suggests establishing a “two strikes and you’re out” policy for offending bullies. Changing behaviour takes time. But if the bully continues to act badly, you can discipline them, demote them, or terminate their employment.

Legislation and Voluntary Codes For Protecting Employee Psychological Health

At its core, workplace bullying is a safety issue. You’re required to provide healthy, secure working conditions for your employees. Allowing them to be harassed and pushed around by a bully contravenes this obligation.
Psychological abuse at work, such as bullying and sexual harassment, is already covered in the Canadian Labour Code. The province of Quebec has already passed a law against workplace “psychological harassment.” Employers and employees are legally bound by these policies.
There is a new, voluntary standard that employers can use as well. It is called "Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – Prevention, promotion and guidance to staged implementation."  The standard is focused on promoting sound mental health of employees, as well as preventing psychological harm from workplace stressors.
Dr. David Goldbloom, the commission's chairman, said the new standards are voluntary because the commission doesn't want people to feel it's imposed on them, and to ensure it is flexible enough to meet the needs of small business as well as large corporations.
The Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace standards are available free at It provides a series of steps and 24 actions on developing a psychologically healthy workplace.

Bullying is a serious issue, one that you can prevent from wrecking havoc on your organization’s staff. All you have to do is recognize the problem and enforce some simple standards of behaviour. Isn’t it time you stood up to the bully and made your workplace safer?