Bullying? Maybe not…

A colleague asked me the other day whether I think there are more lawsuits and more formal workplace complaints than there used to be. I think there are, and one of the things that’s increased dramatically over the past years in my work is more complaints for harassment and bullying against coworkers. Though some of those complaints are clearly valid and serious and need to be addressed in a legal/investigation context, many of the others I see are something else entirely.

Please don’t misunderstand me: bullying is a real and serious issue, a legitimate problem. When one person targets another on the basis of race, gender, religion or any number of other reasons and makes his or her life miserable with taunts, comments, sabotage, malicious gossip or threats – that’s bullying and harassment (at a minimum).  When that’s going on, you need to either address it directly or with assistant from management or human resources.

However, I get worried when I see the word “bullying” so often tossed around and people labeled as bullies when what they’re really doing is essentially behaving badly (they never went to manners class). Unfortunately, there are lots of people who are rude, obnoxious, obstinate, unfriendly, unwelcoming, discourteous, insensitive and otherwise  ill-mannered.

Here’s the sort of thing I’m talking about:

– Susie, the administrative assistant who makes it very difficult for anyone to give her work to do (though doing work for others is her job) by purposely misunderstanding directions and repeatedly getting things wrong.

– Art, the analyst, who constantly interrupts, speaks way too loudly, towers over people (he’s bigger and taller than most everyone and stands way too close).

– Yusuf, a senior employee, who is constantly telling people how to do their jobs because he’s been there a long time and believes he knows all.

– Carlotta who gives out lots of unsolicited advice, spreads gossip constantly and wants to be in everyone else’s business.

So, are these bullies? No, they’re not. They don’t target specific people (one of the definitions of bullying behavior). They’re just generally hard to work with because they have bad manners, are rude and arrogant.

So, if you work with one of these folks, should you file a harassment and bullying complaint? No. You should become assertive and address these behaviors directly.  Even though confronting them may be uncomfortable, it will very likely result in changed behavior.  I’m going to bet that most of the folks who behave this way have never been called on it, so keep doing what they’ve always done.  So, with the above coworkers:

– Be clear in your instructions to Susie, and tell her you expect the work to be done correctly. Follow up and have her re-do it until it’s right. She’ll get tired of that and start doing it right in the first place.

– Politely ask Art to back off, or sit down. Don’t allow him to interrupt – tell him you were speaking, and need to finish (it’s likely no one has ever said that to him before!)

 – Express your appreciation to Yusuf  for providing history, and tell him that you will do things the way you believe to be best, and don’t argue (don’t give him the opportunity to browbeat you into compliance.)

– Stop listening to Carlotta when she gives advice or spreads gossip. Tell her you don’t have time, and go back to your work. A lack of an audience may well tame her inclinations.

There are many other examples of bad behavior at work that are simply that – bad behavior at work. Learn skills to address people who act this way, rather than filing formal complaints. But do make a formal complaint if real harassment and bullying is going on – and learn to tell the difference.

Have you encountered bad behavior at work that may have felt like bullying but wasn’t really? Tell us about the “equal opportunity” rude coworkers you’ve encountered and how you dealt (or should have dealt) with them. ~Daphne Schneider

2 responses to “Bullying? Maybe not…

  1. I used to have a colleague who had selective hearing. As we had an open style office, if we needed someone to come over, we just called to the person (politely of course). However, whenever we called this particular colleague, more often than not, she would not seem to hear us until we walked right up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. We knew she wasn’t hard of hearing cos when it wasn’t about work, her hearing was pretty sharp.

    After a while, whenever we needed her to do work, we jus walked up to her desk.

    • I wouldn’t make that assumption about her hearing. Being hard of hearing myself, my ability to hear AND understand what someone is saying to me in the office varies wildly depending on the person, and whatever else is going on at the time (other conversations, etc). I consider it rather rude to be given work across the office and much prefer someone coming up to my desk directly. An email is even better. Don’t assume you know the hearing ability of another person just because sometimes it doesn’t appear to be a problem at other times, hearing loss just doesn’t work like that.

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