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Costly cruelty: Workplace bullies hard to stop

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

"I believe they know what they are doing," she says.

Who are the targets of bullies?

"Bullies target kind people," Horn says. "Popular people. People others respect. Bullies see such people as threats. Bullies feel intimidated and target their victims to diminish them — thinking that if they shrink their victim it will make them taller."

Because the victims often have high senses of empathy and morality, Horn says, they are confounded by the bully. "They can't believe that someone would act this way," she says. "Because they are people of integrity, they question themselves and ... feel powerless."

Taking action

McMillan had enough of the three bullies and complained to his supervisor. The response? "Well, welcome to the real world. You've just got to man up."

After work one day, he confronted one of the bullies alone in the parking lot. McMillan was a wrestler and says he tried to intimidate the man as they violently shouted at each other.

"I guess I scared him off," he says, "They left me alone after that."

But he regrets the way he handled the problem and says that confrontation could have escalated and gotten him injured or worse.

Namie says confrontations or reporting the incident to a boss or human resources officer may only increase the bullying as the bully feels threatened and retaliates. A study by the institute says 69 percent of victims have confronted the bully and 93 percent of those confrontations failed to stop the bullying.

Lutgen-Sandvik, however, says that it is hard to know for sure if confronting or reporting bullying works, since a successful confrontation may not end up being reported.

What to say

McMillan thinks talking to the bully may be worth trying. For example, if an employee is insulted in front of others (a typical bullying tactic), the employee could privately say something to the bully such as, "When in the meeting you said I was an idiot, it felt like a personal insult and was not advancing the discussion. Was that your intention?"

McMillan calls such an approach “naming the game” because the bully has to explain his intentions.

Lutgen-Sandvik says another tactic recognizes bullies are motivated by fear. She suggests saying something like: "I want you to know I understand how important this project is to you. I want to make as sure as I can that it has a positive outcome. I am committed to doing that for you."

Horn suggests being direct and saying things like "You back off." If the bully looms over a person, that person should literally stand up to them.

Horn admits, however, there is no one right way to deal with bullies.

Namie says confronting the bully immediately — answering the bully's aggression with aggression may — but usually won’t — stop the bully.

"If they could have stopped it," he says, "they would have. They can't or will not defend themselves."

Bullies know it.

Strength in numbers

McMillan says a company has to tolerate bullies for them to exist. Co-workers are complicit if they allow bullies to hurt others.

"One of the most hurtful things you can do is to go silent when someone trespasses another person's boundaries," he says.

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