Handling a Workplace Bully: Pay Them Off or Offer Them Coaching?
There are more and more reported incidents of workplace bullying. Employees are getting better informed about what does and what does not constitute bullying behaviour at work. They are getting braver at using existing policies and procedures to complain about behaviour from colleagues which they consider to be bullying.
ER and HR departments are getting more skilled at rooting out bullying behaviour and addressing it.
And organisations are getting more and more savvy about acting against people who are proven to use bullying behaviour in the workplace.
So What To Do?
For leaders charged with managing the issues created by a having a bullying team member, one of the key questions surrounds what to do with the bully themselves. Moving the bully to another team doesn’t work. It is simply an invitation for the person concerned to repeat their aggression with another group of people.
Removing the person(s) targeted by the bully to another job where they don’t have to come into contact with the bully doesn’t work either.
It places the consequences of the bullying in the wrong place (i.e. with the person being targeted (read: victim) rather than the bully) and can result in the person who has been subject to bullying thinking that they are being ‘punished’ by losing their job for having been bullied!
It is rare for a bully to spontaneously admit that they could do things differently. It can happen, and sometimes does, but, in the main, workplace bullies are resistant to recognising that they consistently or occasionally use counter productive behaviour in the context of a complaint about them by a colleague.
Some Quick Questions:
- So, when it becomes clear that a specific member of the workforce is using bullying behaviour, how does the organisation handle the situation?
- Does it reprimand the bully and hope that things will resolve themselves somehow?
- Or does it ask the person to leave, paying them off, and effectively managing them out of the door while absolving itself of any further responsibility in the matter?
- Or does it decide to retain the services of the bully provided that they agree to alter their approach radically?
In this latter case, the organisation could decide to offer the bully coaching development aimed at replacing their counter-productive, aggressive behaviour with a toolkit of effective management, influencing, and people-handling skills.
To a large extent the decision about whether to pay someone off or assist them to develop effective people-handling skills will depend on whether or not the employee in question is especially valued for their skills, knowledge, drive, and commitment to their work, or whether they are regarded as an average performer and therefore easier to lose.
Get Lost or Not?
If they are someone who performs only average in their role, perhaps letting them go does have some superficial appeal. It wouldn’t represent a big loss to the organisation in terms of skills. It would be a quick and easy solution, if a potentially expensive one depending on the size of the pay off.
The benefits of the approach would be that the remaining employees could go about their work without fear anymore, and the organisation would have acted decisively sending a clear message that bullies won’t be tolerated in the workplace.
But it also a costly option in terms of time and money spent recruiting a replacement employee and it sends out the message that bullying doesn’t bring with it a sanction and a need to change, but instead can result in a fat pay cheque, the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere and the option to continue to use bullying behaviour with a different set of colleagues in a new employer.
These latter issues might not matter to the leader who is content with having booted an average performing bad guy or gal out of their own workforce. But what if the employee in question is regarded as particularly talented member of the team and the leader charged with handling the situation is worried about how to replace them?
Perhaps the bully has an unusual skill set, one which is valued by the organisation.
The leader faces a dilemma: pay the employee off and protect the other members of the workforce or keep the bully but ask them to change their approach?
Consider this: a talented, wayward employee uses bullying behaviour consistently enough that something has to be done about them. They have knowledge, skills and abilities which are highly prized by their employer. But they actively and consistently use behaviour which adversely affects the colleagues they work alongside.
- If they are asked to leave they are free to walk out, find a competitor organisation and go and work for them.
- But if they remain at work employing their current overly aggressive, bullying behaviours they will continue to act in ways which cut the productivity of the colleagues they target, hurting some and possibly harming others.
They will continue to take up management time as the situation is discussed, debated and chewed over. They will continue to take up ER and HR time as complaints about them are made, and the issues they create are handled and remedies sought.
So it might make sense for the leader to offer the bully an effective coaching and development opportunity. It would likely be much cheaper than paying them off and taking the risk that they go and work for a competitor.
It sends a tough message to other would-be bullies that this is how their behaviour will be handled should they over step the mark. It places responsibility for change exactly where it should be: with the bully. The deal would be that the bully needs to use their coaching programme to:
- Re-evaluate the impact of their behaviour on their colleagues.
- Take responsibility for using a counter-productive and unnecessarily bullying approach.
- Replace their unproductive, overly aggressive behaviours with more skilful and useful people-handling tools.
- Develop an effective set of influencing and managing skills.
And Know This
Of course, not every bully may want to step back in this way and participate in a bespoke programme aimed at helping them change the way they handle their colleagues and themselves. But some will. And this solution means that the employing organisation:
- Saves money on both pay-off and recruitment/re-hiring costs.
- Demonstrates to its workforce that it takes their welfare seriously enough that it is prepared to pay for the development programme for its bullying employees.
- Sets the tone that it will become noteworthy and uncomfortable to use a counter productive or overly robust styles in their workplace.
At the end of the day it remains each leader’s responsibility to decide how to handle a proven workplace bully. I hope that this article has given you some food for thought should you find yourself in this position.
How did your organisation handle the last proven case of workplace bullying? Under what circumstances would you be satisfied with paying off a proven bully? What criteria would you use to assess whether or not to offer a proven or potential bully coaching so that they can learn a new way of getting things done? If you wanted to introduce the option of providing coaching for some or all proven or potential bullies in your workplace what steps would you need to take?
Aryanne Oade is Director of Oade Associates
She is a Chartered Psychologist, executive coach, workshop facilitator, author & public speaker
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